Newsweek's February 21 assessment of the CIA's drone assassination program in Pakistan is a largely uncritical defense of the White House policy, with little space for critics who argue the killings are illegal, counterproductive and exact a heavy toll on innocent civilians.
Newsweek presents the piece as an exclusive look at the targeting decisions involved in the CIA's drone program: "The formal process of determining who should be hunted down...has not been previously reported." The CIA unsurprisingly does not talk publicly about these operations. But Newsweek reporter Tara McKelvey puts a positive spin on the program: "A look at the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner."
Near the beginning of the piece, readers are given a glimpse of one drone strike: "An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were spared." Is this typical?
One research paper determined civilians made up 32 percent of deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan (New America Foundation, 2/24/10). This count is almost certainly low, as its data is taken from major U.S. and English-language Pakistani news outlet reports and accepts their characterizations of "civilians" and "militants."
The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) conducted an on-the ground investigation of drone attacks (from 2009 and early 2010), and determined that the nine attacks they surveyed produced a total of 30 civilian deaths (10/10). The CIVIC report points out that Pakistani media outlets, based on government figures, put the civilian death rate from drones at about 90 percent.
The article is short on outside voices who might raise concerns about civilian deaths, or even question the legality of the CIA carrying out assassinations via remote-controlled drone aircraft. Newsweek explains that Obama administration officials have "been careful to reassure the public that the killings are legal." The evidence for this, in the next sentence, is an anonymous official who states that "operations are conducted in strict accordance with American law."
The piece stresses the care taken in the CIA's internal reviews: "The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages." Requests for strikes, according to one former CIA official, "would go to the lawyers, and they would decide. They were very picky."
A more nuanced report about the CIA's drone program by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer (10/26/09) suggested that the U.S. doesn't even pick all its assassination targets, allowing Pakistani officials to direct many drone strikes--a concession to Pakistan's government that would undermine the notion that the strikes are always the subject of careful vetting.
Critics of the drone program's legality are not hard to come by--groups like the ACLU (1/13/10) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (8/3/10) have long argued the strikes could violate the law, as has the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions (5/28/10).
Legal or not, Newsweek explains that "Obama and his advisers favor a more aggressive approach because it seems more practical--that administration officials prefer to eliminate terrorism suspects rather than detain them." The magazine adds that "administration officials say the aerial drone strikes are wiping out Qaeda militants and reducing the chances of another terrorist attack."
In fact, many both inside and outside the government have argued that the strategy is counterproductive; as London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges pointed out less than a year ago in the pages of Newsweek (6/7/10), former legal adviser to Army Special Operations Jeffrey Addicott argued that the strategy is "creating more enemies than we're killing or capturing." Mayer's New Yorker piece also cited military advisers who make the case that the many civilian deaths from drone attacks result in "more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased."
Newsweek does not completely ignore critics of a government program to kill alleged terrorist suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan; they are stuffed into the final paragraphs of the article. After noting that there has been "little outcry" about Obama's "lethal operations"--even though he has authorized four times as many drone attacks as George W. Bush did--Newsweek admits that
for all the bureaucratic review, it's not always precise in the real world. In December people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a strike in 2009 and has filed a lawsuit against the U.S., charging a CIA official for their deaths.
Newsweek then quotes one academic who argues that CIA drone pilots are "are civilians directly engaged in hostilities, an act that makes them 'unlawful combatants' and possibly subject to prosecution."
Placing information about dead civilians and questions about legality at the bottom of the article--well after assurances to the contrary--signals that Newsweek does not consider these parts of the story to be of much importance.
Tell Newsweek that their February 21 piece on CIA drone strikes should have given more attention to critics of the CIA's drone assassinations, who emphasize that the attacks kill civilians and may be illegal.