Questions on drones, unanswered still

The New York Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan writes: Understanding American drone strikes is like a deadly version of the old telephone game: I whisper to you and you whisper to someone else, and eventually all meaning is lost.

You start with uncertain information from dubious sources. Pass it along, run it through the media blender, add pundits, and you’ve got something that may or may not be close to the truth.

How many people have been killed by these unmanned aircraft in the Central Intelligence Agency’s strikes in Yemen and Pakistan? How many of the dead identified as “militants” are really civilians? How many are children?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Britain has estimated that, in the first three years after President Obama took office, between 282 and 535 civilians were credibly reported killed by drone strikes — including more than 60 children. The United States government says the number of civilians killed has been far lower.

Accurate information is hard to come by. The Obama administration and the C.I.A. are secretive about the fast-growing drone program. The strikes in Pakistan are taking place in areas where reporters can’t go, or would be in extreme danger if they did. And it is all happening at a time when the American public seems tired of hearing about this part of the world anyway.

How does The New York Times fit into this hazy picture?

Some of the most important reporting on drone strikes has been done at The Times, particularly the “kill list” article by Scott Shane and Jo Becker last May. Those stories, based on administration leaks, detailed President Obama’s personal role in approving whom drones should set out to kill.

Groundbreaking as that article was, it left a host of unanswered questions. The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed Freedom of Information requests to learn more about the drone program, so far in vain. The Times and the A.C.L.U. also want to know more about the drone killing of an American teenager in Yemen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also shrouded in secrecy.

But The Times has not been without fault. Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as “militants” — itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.

Americans, according to polls, have a positive view of drones, but critics say that’s because the news media have not informed them well. The use of drones is deepening the resentment of the United States in volatile parts of the world and potentially undermining fragile democracies, said Naureen Shah, who directs the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University’s law school.

“It’s portrayed as picking off the bad guys from a plane,” she said. “But it’s actually surveilling entire communities, locating behavior that might be suspicious and striking groups of unknown individuals based on video data that may or may not be corroborated by eyeballing it on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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