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

How much faith can (or should) news organizations place in the U.S. government’s word that it isn’t killing innocents in drone attacks?

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

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.”

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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.”