Oct 1 2011

Remote-Controlled Reporting on Remote-Controlled War

With Pakistan drone strikes, official story is media’s story

drone_6701-300x156The New York Times (12/4/09) calls the American drone program “one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets.” This is particularly true for people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan that border Afghanistan, where the low humming sound which gives them their local name—machay, meaning wasps—is very familiar.

Since the drone program in Pakistan began in 2004, between 1,650 and 2,880 people have been killed in as many as 295 drone attacks (New America Foundation, 8/11/11; Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 8/10/11)—with the number increasing drastically in 2009, after President Obama took office. In his first year in office alone, there were more attacks than in eight years under George W. Bush, who first authorized the program. Despite this escalation in secret drone attacks, there has been no comparable increase in attention to the program by U.S. corporate media.

The rapid escalation in use of these “unmanned aerial vehicles”—flown remotely from faraway Langley, Virginia, and Nevada—points to their new role as the weapon of choice in the so-called global war on terror. Indeed, the new counterterrorism policy of the Obama administration, as announced by homeland security adviser John Brennan (6/29/11), declares that “our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.”

The U.S. government now runs two drone programs: The Air Force operates the drones in Iraq and Afghanistan while the CIA controls the attacks inside Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. is not officially at war (New Yorker, 10/26/09). The CIA program is shrouded in secrecy in general, but particularly in Pakistan, where the agency publicly denies having any role. The Pakistani government issues public condemnations but is widely believed to secretly condone the attacks (Dawn, 5/20/11), with its military sharing intelligence and a base in Pakistan with the U.S. (Dawn, 5/21/11, 7/1/11).

Reporting facts in this context becomes difficult—and even more so because access to the tribal areas where most of the attacks take place is at times impossible. Even Pakistani journalists do not get official access to FATA, especially the militant strongholds. News reports depend mainly on phone conversations with local stringers in the area, who, at great risk to their lives from both Pakistani military and the militants, collect secondhand information from locals (New York Times, 6/17/06). (In most attacks, either the militants or the military cordon off the site—AFP, 8/16/11; BBC, 5/11/10—making eyewitness accounts rare.)

Local political officials are another source. But the information combined from both sources is threadbare. In special cases when a pro-government tribe or a public place is hit, with high civilian casualties, the Pakistani military allows TV reporters to take footage of the rubble (e.g., Aaj TV, 7/10/10).

With such limited access to information, the official narrative becomes the media narrative. A Columbia Journalism Review survey (5-6/11) of U.S., European and Pakistani newspaper coverage of strikes in FATA highlights an alarming trend: U.S. officials engage in selective secrecy, only revealing information and details of those attacks that kill high-level militants. The survey shows that there was a 68 percent rise in drone coverage, to 136 stories, in a three-month period in 2009, when Pakistan Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a strike.

This coverage contrasts strikingly to the 80 stories in the first three months of Obama’s presidency when no “high-value” target was killed, but there were at least 115 deaths—civilian and combatant. Limited information about the earlier strikes resulted in less coverage, CJR noted, “but when the commander was targeted and killed, the dire need for secrecy melted away.”

The CJR survey also pointed out that many of the articles that appeared in the U.S. press had a “celebratory tone and reflected the mood of American officials.” This is a key danger when the state controls the flow of information; news reports are reliant on official versions that glorify the program and avoid admitting civilian casualties. Wars are difficult to report without bias, but when they are also secret, journalists need to step up their vigilance against planted misinformation.

The U.S. media have failed to do this. There is very limited coverage on TV, and print coverage takes U.S. officials in Washington as primary sources of information. Despite bureaus and correspondents in Pakistan, on-the-ground coverage is very limited, let alone critical examination of the claimed efficiency of the drone program.

A recent study by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (8/10/11) reveals damning details about the civilian casualties of the strikes—an important factor seldom investigated by U.S. corporate media (Extra!, 6/09). In detailed research based on “some 2,000 media reports; witness testimonies; field reports of NGOs and lawyers; secret U.S. government cables; leaked intelligence documents, and relevant accounts by journalists, politicians and former intelligence officers,” BIJ investigated every reported drone strike since 2004. It concluded that the strikes have led to more deaths than previously reported, with more than 160 children among the 2,292 killed. The report contrasted these figures with U.S. administration claims that out of 2,050 killed by drones, only 50 of them were “noncombatants.”

The BIJ report sparked little interest in the American media, with CBS, NBC and ABC not covering the report’s findings at all. On CNN (8/12/11), the only channel to address the report, anchors T. J. Holmes and Wolf Blitzer talked to a correspondent in Islamabad—no U.S. official was questioned on air about the civilian casualties.

In print, the New York Times (8/11/11) carried a curious report with an unnamed U.S. official contradicting the BIJ account on four strikes (out of 291), including the controversial March 17, 2011, strike in North Waziristan that the BIJ says killed 11 Taliban fighters and between 19 and 30 civilians gathered for a tribal council meeting. For each strike, the Times listed the Bureau’s account, followed by “The American Official” account.

At the time of the actual strike, unnamed U.S. officials in both the Washington Post and New York Times offered similar quotes: There was “every indication this was a group of terrorists, not a charity carwash in the hinterlands” (Washington Post, 3/19/11); “This was a group of terrorists. We’re not talking about a bunch of guys who were playing pinochle at the local Kiwanis club” (Washington Post, 3/19/11); and “These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale. They were terrorists” (New York Times, 3/18/11).

The BIJ report found that of the 2,000 militants claimed as killed by the U.S., only 126 have actually been identified as “named militants.” The others? Low-ranking foot soldiers. This raises questions about the supposed efficacy of the strikes in weakening Al-Qaeda, which is generally reported as fact (e.g., Washington Post, 6/1/11).

A Washington Post editorial (10/6/09) concluded that “by most accounts, Al-Qaeda has been put on the defensive in recent years, badly damaged by U.S. drone attacks.” Sketchy, unquestioned statements like “nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al-Qaeda on a list compiled last year have been killed, according to American military commanders” (New York Times, 4/16/09) are regularly pieced together in stories about how efficient the strikes are. A Washington Post story (2/21/11) questioning the “blurry” data about civilian casualties includes no quotes from survivors of the strikes or relatives of the victims.

Indeed, local eyewitnesses and the injured are mostly missing from U.S. media accounts of drone strikes—or are used to validate the strikes. The Times (4/16/09) reported on a survey by a Pakistani think tank, the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, that claimed locals in the tribal areas supported the strikes. The paper quoted academics and experts making a case for the survey’s credibility, but had not a single quote challenging the findings.

Other surveys dispute that research, though: A survey conducted by the centrist New America Foundation (9/28/10) found that “more than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose American drone strikes.” NAF also runs a widely popular database of drone strikes, cited frequently by the U.S. media. Their methodology and database have been questioned for their conservative count of civilian casualties (Al Jazeera English, 6/13/11).

Another Times story (4/5/10) says of “government supporters”: “They are prepared to sacrifice the civilians if it means North Waziristan will be rid of the militants, in particular the Arabs.” No source is given for this controversial claim.

While calling for more accountability, the New York Times (10/12/10) is clear in its justification for drone strikes: If Pakistan “won’t go after insurgents targeting American troops, then the United States military will.” A recent editorial (8/14/11), terming the BIJ report and U.S. version “parallel realities,” questioned the discrepant casualty figures, arguing that while drones are successful, the lack of transparency by the U.S. government is “counterproductive.” The paper had earlier published an editorial (12/8/09) maintaining that drones alone are not enough.

The Washington Post is far more hawkish in its support for “unilateral military action using drones” (5/1/08): “To its credit, the Obama administration has stepped up drone attacks in North Waziristan, despite rote Pakistani protests,” the Post (5/6/10) declared. In an earlier editorial (1/25/06), the paper urged the U.S. government to continue drone strikes in Pakistan “with or without Gen. Musharraf’s cooperation.”

It bolstered its argument by pointing to a recent drone strike that killed “at least 13 people, several important Al-Qaeda operatives possibly among them.” The BIJ report (8/10/11) cast strong suspicion on that claim: “Despite initial reports that all the victims were Al-Qaeda or Taliban figures, including six leading fighters, later reports suggested that most or all of the dead were civilians, including 14 from one family, and five children.”

The drones represent a drastic change in how wars are being fought and will be fought in the future—but despite the enormity of this prospect, the coverage represents little critical discussion for the audience that pays for this radical change toward robotic warfare. The press instead readily accepts official versions of its success and efficiency with little investigative reporting of its own.

More hard-hitting questions need to be asked: Under what international laws are drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia legal? How are targets chosen? Are the strikes increasing anti-U.S. sentiments in these places? And what are the long-term implications of the continuing shift in warfare to increasingly remote-controlled tactics? That such investigative journalism is difficult when the wars are officially secret only means journalists should be pushing harder for answers.

Rahma Muhammad Mian was a recent FAIR intern