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Whom do you trust to decide who shall live or die?

REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
A man walks past graffiti denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa.

If some foreign country asserted its right to fly pilotless drones over U.S. territory, looking for bad guys who need to be killed and, when it found them, killing them by remote assassination, I guess most of us would know what to think about that.

But, of course, in the name of the Global War On Terror, the United States does that often, in Yemen and Pakistan and other countries in which it believes bad guys are moving around, planning murderous mayhem against Americans or our allies. The level of oversight that such operations get is impossible to tell from the outside or even to believe what we are told afterwards.

And, in writing about such operations, how much faith can (or should) news organizations place in the government’s word that it isn’t killing innocents?

Writing for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald calls attention to this very creepy problem, thus:

There’s simply no doubt that U.S. media outlets have continuously and repeatedly — and falsely — described innocent civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks as “militants.” Just last month, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented that “fewer than 4% of the people killed have been identified by available records as named members of al Qaeda,” directly contrary to “John Kerry’s claim last year that only ‘confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level’ were fired at.”

It’s certainly true that reporting is extremely difficult in those places where U.S. drone strikes are most common. But that’s all the more reason to exercise caution when making claims about who the victims are. Instead, these media outlets reflexively adopt the extremely dubious claims of U.S. officials and those of allied governments (such as Yemen and Pakistan) about the identity of the victims.

Greenwald reminds us that more than two years ago, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration decided to count any male of military age that it kills in one of these attacks as a “militant” “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Again, if any foreign country announced a policy of killing people about whom it had no specific information as to their killworthiness, and then presumptively declaring them to have been killworthy unless someone can prove that they weren’t (and in that case — oops) we would be fairly reluctant to approve of that program.

If Americans can make their peace at all with the existence of these drone strikes, and if we occasionally remind ourselves that Pakistanis and Yemenis are human beings who in some sense deserve not to be killed by U.S. operations unless they are truly engaging in acts of war against our country, we should at least expect/demand some kind of oversight and check and balance (which is not to blithely assume that there is a reasonable alternative system available).

Then the next level, which is really the point of Greenwald’s piece, is that the news media, which occasionally writes about these deadly attacks, has to either take the government’s word for it that they are killing “militants” and not innocent bystanders or else — well it’s not that easy to know what the alternative would be, but according to Greenwald, no serious alternative is being used. The news stories adopt the government’s position that any military-aged males who were in the area and got drone-killed were “militants,” a vague term that at least suggests the person did something to deserve being killed.

Greenwald called the practice “pro-government stenography,” and argues that “the fact that it continues even two years after the Times revealed that the U.S. government has formally adopted a completely propagandistic definition of ‘militant’ makes this behavior willfully misleading.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/24/2014 - 10:02 am.

    “willfully misleading”

    …seems to me a charitable term for “lies.” Just because we *can* do this does not mean that we *should* do this. Unless, of course, we assume that the United States is the only nation capable of judging what is moral and what is not.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/24/2014 - 10:04 am.

    This issue is an important one, but coming, as is does, from a guy so nihilistically myopic he personally censors comment threads below his stories, Greenwald’s complaint of media whitewash rings particularly hollow.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/24/2014 - 10:21 am.

    Life is complicated

    when we have to deal with ‘unconventional’ warfare.
    The bad guys don’t usually wear uniforms.
    If we could have identified and killed the 9/11 hijackers before the event, should we have?

    Obama’s mistake was assuming that there are clear ‘red lines’ someplace. To his credit, he’s learned that life ain’t that simple.
    This means that when someone guesses wrong he’s the bad guy; but can we afford not to guess?

  4. Submitted by Josh William on 11/24/2014 - 11:04 am.

    Ahh, yes

    Guilty until your corpse is proven innocent. God bless the CIA.

    The kids flying these drones… what do they think about after they get to go home to the their families at the end of the day?

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/24/2014 - 12:01 pm.

    I would suspect the “collateral damage” from the drone killings is substantially smaller that the “collateral damage” in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    It is substantially less than in the Vietnam War, the Korean War, WW2, WW1– all the way back to the days when God commanded total warfare calling for the slaying all the men, women children and animals of various cities.

    Which brings another uncomfortable parallel — the people in we are targeting are calling for total warfare against the west based on what they hear in the call of God.

    It is clear that conventional warfare has far more innocent deaths than drone warfare. Unless we are willing bear the costs to engage in the same personalized, face-to-face killings as was done with Osama bin Laden, and all of the dangers that that entails, the drone presents the cleanest of a dirty sets of options.

    Innocents die and we cannot be blameless in our cocoon provided by the structures of our society.

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/24/2014 - 01:05 pm.

    War is even more complicated

    Nobody should condone the killing of innocent civilians but as mentioned there have always been the slaughter of innocent civilians in war including today. These US drone attacks have pretty minimal collateral damage compared to the rape, torture and slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians by the terrorist forces we are fighting.
    Many areas of Syria and Iraq either have US air power or the civilian population is annihilated by terrorist forces. War is hell and we are fighting terrorists groups that enjoy raping women and beheading the men. What choices does the US have?

  7. Submitted by Wes Davey on 11/24/2014 - 07:10 pm.

    I’ll sound the drumbeat once again: at some point we need to start paying for our non-stop wars. Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were put on the national credit card, and as a result the current debt for those two wars alone stands at over $1.5 trillion; that’s about $5,000 for every single American. Put another way, a family of four owes $20,000 just for the war costs to date.

    Of course, it gets worse. The long-term debt for those two wars now stands at an estimated $16,000 for every single American – a staggering $64,000 debt inflicted on a family of four by the war-mongers of our country (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the neo-con war-hawks).

    You want more war? Fine, but first, make out a check to the U.S. Treasury for your family’s share of the last two wars. (BTW, that elderly lady working the McDonald’s lunch counter really can’t afford to pay her share, so please chip in a bit for her when you’re writing a check.) Second, have at least one member of your immediate family member serving in the military.

    Do those two things and your call for war will have some legitimacy.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/25/2014 - 08:03 pm.


    Mr. Greenwald is an enemy of the United States (his favorite guy is hiding in Russia now) and the US should do the opposite of what he says.

    Yes, wars are hell and they cost lives and money and if we can reasonably reduce those costs we should…. which drones actually do. But Munich ’38 is not the way to do it (and neither is sucking up to Iran).

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