September 26, 2020

The Media Equation: The Inconvenient but Vital Drone Debate

Some think not. In a report released last week by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Tara McKelvey, who has done her share of significant reporting on the issue, suggested that during Mr. Obama’s first term, “the media fell short in its coverage” of the drone program.

She applauded the increased attention to the issue, saying in a survey that coverage in five major media outlets had almost doubled since the start of that term, rising to 625 stories in 2012 from 326 in 2009.

Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Journalists at The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The New York Times and The New Yorker have done a remarkable job on pulling back the blankets on a covert program overseen by an administration that is very aggressive in protecting secrets.

If the Congress — and perhaps the public — doesn’t know about the drone program, it isn’t for lack of coverage. Perhaps the reason so many people are in the dark is because they want it that way. After all, if the bad guys are on the run without risking legions of boots on the ground, what’s not to like?

For many people, of course, there is plenty not to like. Michael Isikoff of NBC News obtained a 16-page white paper outlining when the government contends that it is legal to kill Americans who join Al Qaeda. His reporting helped make the drone issue part of the confirmation hearings, leading to this statement on Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee from Mr. Brennan, which sounded like a parody of Washington doublespeak: “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.”

Congress, in spite of the pointed questions aimed at Mr. Brennan last week, has been remarkably incurious since the program began.

“Some 3,500 people have died in 420 strikes, and Congress has yet to hold a single public hearing on this issue,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It has happened in the dark because we have allowed it to, and the press has far and away been the lead actor in surfacing this issue.”

Back in 2009, Jane Mayer did a deep dive into the issue. “It’s important,” Ms. Mayer said in a telephone interview. “After scientists working for America split the atom, there was an awesome new technology, and they had to come up with a legal framework to contain it. Drones represent a very big change as well, and there should be a lot of open discussion about defining the rules of its use.”

Most of that discussion has occurred in the press, not in the halls of government. An article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane in The New York Times last May revealed that the administration had a “kill list” of people who were targeted for elimination, often by drones.

Last week, an article in The Times by Robert F. Worth, Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane pointed out that drones, which are held by the government to be instruments of precision, are often a blunt technology that sometimes takes out the very people the United States needs in places like Yemen.

If some of the news coming out of the hearings last week was a big surprise, it might be because people chose not to pay close attention.

“I think what you saw on Thursday,” Mr. Shane, referring to the Brennan hearings, said in a telephone interview, “is that people are beginning to realize that they have introduced this whole new way of killing people without public debate or pushback and the disaffection with the lack of oversight boiled over.”

The specifics of the drone program have been carefully shielded at every turn. In January a federal judge ruled against The New York Times in its effort to compel the Justice Department to disclose the memo that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a United States citizen who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, without any due process of law. (The death of an American at the other end of a drone seemed to prompt a new level of interest and scrutiny by the news media.)

Even though the judge, Colleen McMahon, ruled in the government’s favor, she did not sound very happy about it.

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