On May 10, CBS's 60 Minutes presented a remarkably one-sided report on unmanned Air Force drones firing missiles into Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the drones have been criticized for killing civilians in both countries, CBS viewers heard from no critics of the weapons.
Instead, correspondent Lara Logan seemed awed by the drones from the very start of the broadcast: "Every so often in the history of war, a new weapon comes along that fundamentally rewrites the rules of battle. This is a story about a revolution in unmanned aviation that is doing just that." She described the drones as "hunting down insurgents, every minute of every day," and as "one of the most important planes in the United States Air Force."
Viewers were told that CBS was getting special access: "Many of the details of this weapons program are classified, but our 60 Minutes team was given secret clearance and unprecedented access to bring you this story." The report relied entirely on pilots and the Air Force chief of staff.
The closest the segment came to airing any criticism at all was when Logan asked one pilot, Lt. Col. Chris Gough, about his confidence in the targeting of the missile attacks: "What if you get it wrong?" Logan asked. "We don't," Gough replied, before finally admitting that it's "a tough question.... We have the resources to make sure we're right." Gough stressed the "clarity" of being removed from the battlefield--the drones are piloted from a base in Nevada--which led Logan to say, "In spite of that clarity, unmanned planes and Air Force jets are criticized in Afghanistan for killing innocent civilians, including an incident just this week that is under military investigation." Those comments were accompanied primarily by footage of screaming Afghans protesting in a street, with a brief shot of a hospitalized child.
Logan added that drone attacks in Pakistan are "blamed for even more deaths." She reported that the CIA "wouldn't talk to 60 Minutes about their operations," so she gives the Air Force the last word on the subject, noting that they argue the drones are "more precise than piloted planes." Logan seemed to accept this argument: "We got a sense of that when the Air Force let us sit with Predator pilots in Nevada while they kept a close watch on U.S. soldiers along the Afghan/Pakistan border."
It would not have been difficult to find critics of the reliance on drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq--even among those close to the military. As the Los Angeles Times reported a week before the CBS segment aired (5/3/09), the House Armed Services Committee had recently heard testimony from David Kilcullen--a former adviser to General David Petraeus--who believes the drone attacks take too many civilian lives. Kilcullen testified that while drone attacks are suspected to have killed 14 Al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 in Pakistan, at the same time the weapons have killed about 700 civilians--a 50:1 ratio of innocent victims to targeted enemies.
Such perspectives were missing from the CBS report, leaving 60 Minutes to air what amounted to little more than military propaganda about controversial--and deadly--weapons.
Tell CBS that its May 10 60 Minutes report about drone attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq should have included critics of these weapons. Excluding such criticisms, while relying so heavily on military footage and sources, looks more like propaganda than journalism.
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