Why can’t the media be more transparent about drones?


If you’ve ever wondered why America’s confidence in newspapers continues to slide (it’s now down to 24 percent), consider an editorial, “Transparency in the Drone Wars,” in Sunday’s New York Times. In it, the newspaper continues its clueless attack on drone operations by denigrating as insufficient the White House announcement that it intended to release more information about drone strikes. Among other things, the editorial illustrates the futility anyone attempting to satisfy the critics, as well as the critics’ own lack of transparency.

{mosads}For example, the Times claims that the program has been “controversial” and “long … dogged by questions about its morality and legality.” What they don’t reveal to readers is that it is “controversial” only among a small minority of the public. Specifically, a Pew Research Center poll from less than a year ago shows that only 35 percent of Americans disapproved of the strikes.

Moreover, is it right to question the “morality” of the significant majority (58 percent) of Americans who support killing terrorists with drones simply because they disagree with the New York Times’s assessment of the world? In fact, given that drones are unmatched in terms of “accuracy, control, [and] oversight” (as the headline of a piece by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula notes), shouldn’t the real question be the morality of failing to use them to stop terrorists? Indeed, don’t we have a duty to use them to try to save innocents?

Legality? The same poll shows that an even smaller percentage (29 percent) are “very concerned” about the legality of the program. In my opinion, this reflects a view by the vast majority of people that they believe the military (which tops the polls in institutions in which the public has confidence, with almost three times the level of newspapers) and others in the national security establishment are right to adhere to the more-than-what-the-law-requires policy that the administration announced in 2013.

The Times does not mention in its editorial that the program has, unlike almost everything else in politics these days, strong bipartisan support — even though the paper itself reported it. Furthermore, drones are a major fear of terrorists, as revealed by materials seized in the Osama bin Laden raid, something reported by The Guardian on March 1.

Perhaps more importantly, in a 2015 Foreign Affairs article, “The Bureaucracy of Terror,” Jennifer Williams concluded from her own examination of the documents that they “support the argument that U.S. President Barack Obama and other proponents of the drone program have made that the strikes are effective and that the U.S. drone program is heavily constrained.”

The Times also cites the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) to tell you that there have been “hundreds of civilian casualties.” True, but isn’t it more relevant to look at the numbers for recent years? For example, since 2012, BIJ says that in Pakistan there have been 886 people killed, of whom a maximum of just 74 were civilians. Sure, any civilian death is a tragedy, but the law recognizes that in war — particularly when the enemy hides among civilians — such deaths are inevitable, and thus prohibits only “excessive” civilian casualties.

Again, you be the judge: Are 74 civilian casualties “excessive” in relation to the 812 militants who were killed, terrorists who would have gone on to kill who knows how many civilians themselves? It is fascinating that members of the Times’s editorial board make no effort to weigh the obvious success of the program in their attack upon it, or, in any event, give you the numbers that reflect how the program operates today.

Why isn’t the Times (and other drone critics) more transparent about the facts? The Pew Research Center poll may suggest the answer: support for drone strikes rises dramatically as educational level rise. Are the critics concluding that because the best-educated Americans very strongly support drone operations, that the optimal strategy is to obfuscate for them and others what is already known?

Before complaining about a lack of transparency, isn’t it better evaluate exactly what the public needs or wants to know? The Times wants a “detailed breakdown of casualties by strike or geographic area” and an “unredacted document outlining rules for lethal missions outside declared war zones” oblivious to any consideration as to how terrorists might use such information to devise stratagems to avoid the strikes.

The histrionics of the drone critics’ failed arguments demonstrate that there are some people who are unalterably opposed to drones no matter what the facts show, or how successful the program has been. And, of course, they offer no alternative; if they have their way, the reality is that an untold number of terrorists will live on to wreak their havoc on the world’s most vulnerable people.

This piece has been revised on March 21, 2016 at 12:04 p.m.

Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who is currently executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School.

Tags Barack Obama Drone Drone strike
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