US newspapers ignore drone missile critics

The HKS Citizen (Harvard Kennedy School)
October 26, 2010
By Sanjeev Bery

Over the last two months, the US government has dramatically increased drone missile strikes in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, mainstream US newspapers have not shown the inclination to ask tough questions regarding the change in policy.

In a replay of the softball coverage that preceded the second US invasion of Iraq, some of the biggest US newspapers are once again showing how easy it is to embed a pro-government bias in their reporting.   The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The New York Times have all covered the news by mostly quoting US officials while ignoring critics.

Take The Wall Street Journal’s top headline for October 3rd — “CIA Escalates in Pakistan.”  The article quotes only three people — US Senator John Kerry (D-MA), an unnamed “US official,” and an unnamed “former senior intelligence official.”  All three sources support official US arguments for expanding the drone missile war.

Over the course of 1,100 words, Wall Street Journal reporters Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman failed to include a single quote from a critic of drone missile attacks. The Washington Post wasn’t much different.

In his October 3rd piece, “CIA backed by military drones in Pakistan,” Washington Post reporter Greg Miller quoted a series of unnamed US officials in reporting on the new policy.  The only on-the-record quote comes from former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who was involved with Obama Administration war planning.  Additional information is drawn from the New America Foundation, a think tank that has been critical of drone missile attacks.  But all that is included from the think tank are statistics on the number of attacks, not the foundation’s critical analysis.

Of the three newspapers, the New York Times fared best, though even its reporting relied heavily on US government sources.  In the September 27th piece, “C.I.A. Steps Up Drone Attacks on Taliban in Pakistan,” reporters Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt draw their information from a mix of unnamed US officials and the Senate testimony of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Only one critical source is included — an unnamed Pakistani intelligence official who argues that senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders had already fled the areas facing drone missile attacks.  To their credit, the New York Times reporters also mention that there are “concerns that the drone strikes are fueling anger in the Muslim world.”

Still, each of these articles falls far short of the standard necessary to empower American voters to critically evaluate US foreign policy.  To meet this standard, they could have started by covering the work of the above mentioned New America Foundation, based in Washington DC.  With funding from Congress, the think tank recently conducted a public opinion poll of 1,000 Pakistan border region residents.  The comprehensive poll involved interviews across 120 different villages in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA).

According to the results, over three-quarters of those polled oppose the US drone strikes.  Only 16 percent think these strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians, and another 33 percent feel they kill both civilians and militants.

Interestingly, the poll also revealed what Pakistanis in FATA described as their biggest problems.  95 percent of those polled pointed to a lack of jobs. This was closely followed by the following list of concerns:  “lack of schools, good roads and security, poor health care and corruption of local official officials.”

Perhaps most importantly, the poll also revealed that “opposition to the U.S. is based on current American military policy, not any intractably held anti-American beliefs.”  Indeed, poll respondents wanted a US intervention of a very different kind.  “Almost three-quarters of the people inside the tribal regions said that their opinion of the United States would improve if the U.S. increased visas for FATA residents and educational scholarships to America, withdrew the American military from Afghanistan or brokered a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

But such information doesn’t seem newsworthy to major US newspapers.  One week after the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal article, the New York Times ran an October 9th editorial stating, “The drone program has been effective, killing more than 400 Al Qaeda militants this year alone, according to American officials, but fewer than 10 noncombatants.”  The Wall Street Journal was no different, summarizing unnamed US officials’ claims that “the CIA’s targeting of militants is precise, and that there have been a limited number of civilian casualties.”

Neither paper included an independent source to respond to the US officials’ claims.  Whatever the final death count, the US newspapers have a responsibility to get a second opinion from someone other than the very officials with a vested interest in justifying their policies.

When it comes to drone missile attacks in Pakistan, American voters deserve a rich discussion of the issues on the table.  It is certainly important to know what the official justifications are for US policies in the region.  But it is equally important to know why those justifications might be wrong.

Sanjeev Bery is the Executive Director of Freedom Forward (  He is a midcareer MPA candidate at HKS.

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