When considering the fact that the New York Times story from Jo Becker and Scott Shane was a major story containing multiple revelations on how President Barack Obama and his administration decide which “terror suspects” to target and kill, there really was not much media coverage of at all. Numerous commentaries and analyses have been posted online, however, it really has received a scant amount of attention. Particularly in television and radio commentators and pundits have been largely silent. They’ve let the Times bask in the glory of what Chris Floyd of Empire Burlesque called “a love letter to Obama’s murder racket.”
NPR did a radio segment on Tuesday with Shane and host Melissa Block of “All Things Considered” said the baseball cards with “terrorists” on them, which are used to select targets, is a part of a “macabre” process.
Just after 4 pm ET, the same day, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer covered the story. He got a “debriefing” from Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence. The segment did not really aim to defend what was coming out from the story. It also did not really bother to contextualize the revelations either.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Obama promised to sort of lift the veil of secrecy that’s gone on over the use of unmanned drones, but when you do so what you see is a president that is intermittently involved in the decision making progress.
What you see is from a “New York Times” article that’s laid this out in the greatest detail yet, is that the president is involved almost in a tactical level and the change in technology has allowed this president to make decisions that no previous president has been able to do.
So what you have is a wide variety of counterterrorism officials and national security officials weighing in and looking at the biographies of suspected terrorists to decide who’s going to be next on the kill list and then finally, the president himself can weigh in.
And make an exact decision, because of technology and because of these drone strikes, it’s the president himself that can make these sorts of tactical decisions.
I spoke with an analyst, Peter Singer who said there are actually two kill lists, one being run by the military and one being run by the CIA and the thing is that you can manipulate the list.
In other words, if you have a target that doesn’t meet the criteria from the military list, you can put that name on the CIA list and what that could do in some cases where you have this overlap is it opens up the process to perhaps manipulation because you’ve got some of the same people involved on these meetings, Wolf and some of the same people with different agendas using these lists.
BLITZER: And at least for now, correct me if I’m wrong, the legal opinions and the White House legal opinion, the Justice Department legal opinion, DOD legal opinion authorizing these targeted killings with the drones and other means necessary, those legal opinions remain classified, right?
LAWRENCE: Those remained classified and either the White House or the Pentagon has really given a full accounting of how they measure civilian casualties. They will say publicly that they won’t go ahead with the strike, you know, if there was a danger of high civilian casualties.
But in countries where there are no boots on the ground, so to speak, they never account for how they verify how many civilian casualties there are in these strikes. They simply keep saying the casualties are low. The casualties are low without verifying how they got that number or how they’re making that assessment. [emphasis added]
Two significant details come out of this segment: (1) there are internal battles between the military and CIA over whom to kill and, if the military will not kill a “terrorist,” the CIA can just put the “terrorist” on their list and (2) the Obama administration really has no way of knowing how many civilians are killed because they just don’t have a process in place for counting civilians. Both should be troubling to anyone, but, of course, in typical CNN fashion Blitzer just leaves it there.
Somewhat fascinatingly, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien did a segment on Tuesday on the news that the Obama administration plans to arm Italy’s drones. This was billed as a “step in the dangerous direction.” The way the drone war seeks to redefine the concept of due process was not raised but the fact that another country would get robotic warfare and use it with the same impunity that the US currently enjoys created some concern.
Fox News programs gave the story a fair amount of attention. Mostly, they argued Obama carries out this program to look tough. Bob Beckel on “The Five” on Tuesday said, “First of all, I don’t — I mean, that’s what presidents do. George Bush kept a stack of cards in his desk, where he had a picture of terrorists on it. As they were killed he took them off, understandably the right thing to do.” He said the difference between Obama and Bush is now he uses drones. And he said for anyone to suggest “there is something wrong with a kill list, for you to suggest that shows you how rabidly anti-Obama you are.”
On Tuesday’s edition of “Fox Special Report with Bret Baier,” columnist Charles Krauthammer took issue with all the power being vested in Obama instead of the military. It was also another opportunity for conservative commentators to point out the hypocrisy of liberals on national security issues:
KRAUTHAMMER: Failsafe? He is the executioner. The way the story is written and way it’s reported and the way the administration wants everybody to see this is he sits there with what they call the baseball cards and he chooses who lives and who dies. I can assure you if that was the Bush administration and Cheney it would be called the worst possible name.
I’m not against this. I think this is part of a war on terror. But the idea that the president somehow is the man of last resort — he decided that the big decisions are his. He decided on al-Awlaki. And he also decides that the family is nearby, are you going to attack or not? This reminds us of Lyndon Johnson, the pictures of him in the Situation Room where he picked actual targets for the war in Vietnam. Everybody agrees in retrospect it was the worst possible way to run a war. He is not a military man. He chose them by emotion, by the seat of his pants. [emphasis added]
The same day that the Times reported on Obama’s “kill list” the Daily Beast ran an excerpt from Daniel Klaideman’s book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. That helped amplify the attention given to Obama’s drone program.
After reading a bit from the book excerpt, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough expressed concern on his show “Morning Joe.” He, too, compared Obama to Johnson.
John Heilemann, an MSNBC political analyst, and Steve Rattner both appeared on the program and were pretty sympathetic toward the president’s decision to wield power as drone executioner-in-chief. Heilemann called the drone strikes “precise,” which set Scarborough off: “Drone attacks are not precise…Beating down doors and shooting people in the head — that is precise. There is nothing precise about drone attacks.” He also didn’t find this to shield him from criticism because he was involved in making a “moral choice” about who to kill.
This was pretty much the only coverage MSNBC gave to the revelations. Hosts Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton and others really did not cover the revelations in any segment. That may be because Schultz and others think drones focus resources on terrorists in a way George W. Bush never did. That may be because Obama needs the drone war to look tough on national security and neutralize any effort by Mitt Romney to look better than Obama on terrorism issues.
What’s important to note is no officials from the Obama administration were called on to any broadcast news programs to address what was revealed. They either turned down interviews or were not invited. The media relied on punditry and let the president enjoy his warrior moment.
Also, liberals or progressives planning to vote for Obama were and continue to be virtually silent. They loathe people discussing issues that stem from Obama’s drone policy. They are of the mind that there is no alternative. Either America can use drones to kill “terrorists” in foreign countries or America can use military forces to kill “terrorists” in foreign countries. The answer to the issue of terrorism, which is exaggerated by the US government, is to use force and only use force. Socioeconomic remedies to terrorism—remedies that are less of an affront to the sovereignty of countries—are not part of the conversation.
Opposition to Obama as he campaigns for re-election is considered worthless because Mitt Romney would not be better. Criticizing Obama could help Romney get elected. He wants to bomb Iran. (They ignore the fact that Obama is also belligerent toward Iran.) Even if he’s horrible on drones, Romney is worse on other national security or civil liberties issues (supposedly). Silence is called for right now. They do not want to feel uncomfortable by challenging him or be bothered with Obama’s personal role in drone executions. They’d rather be complicit. (This is why a blog like Think Progress had no report on the Times story on Tuesday and the Daily Kos had not put any coverage of the Times story on their front page.)
Interestingly, Reuters may have refined how it describes those killed in drone attacks because of what was revealed in the Times story. The story reported Obama uses a method that reduces the number of civilian casualties. Any military-age male in the vicinity of the site of a drone strike is considered a “combatant.”
Just today there is a report from Reuters on a drone attack in Yemen. Here is how they report it:
An unmanned drone killed 11 people who residents said they suspected of being Islamic militants as they met in a house in southern Yemenon Friday. [emphasis added]
Compare that to a Reuters report on a strike that occurred early in May:
An apparent U.S. drone attack killed at least five al Qaeda-linked militants in south Yemen on Saturday while Yemeni government forces killed 15 others in a new offensive against insurgents, officials and residents said. [emphasis added]
And, a report from March on a strike.
A U.S. drone attack killed at least five suspected al Qaeda militants travelling in a car in southern Yemen’s Shabwa province on Friday, local officials said.
This may be nothing. But, in both the recent report and May report, the Reuters is sourcing “residents.” It now appears that Reuters may want to be careful about reporting all people killed are “militants.”
Finally, Stephen Colbert did a masterful satire of Obama’s “righteous drone strikes” on “The Colbert Report” last night:
He doesn’t have to worry about habeas corpus because after a drone strike you can’t even find the corpus.
The men are considered terrorists unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proven innocent in which case I assume there is a legal process that un-kills them.
Colbert goes on to offer a solution to Obama’s Guantanamo problem. The segment is below in two parts.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, posts a roundup on the media coverage of Obama’s “kill list.” FAIR notes MSNBC chose to cover the birtherism of Donald Trump instead of Obama’s policy on drones. The post also cites ABC’s Jake Tapper, who has developed a reputation as an aggressive journalist. He challenged White House press secretary Jay Carney on the administration’s expansive definition of “militants.”