NYT Contributor Has Multiple Motives for Denying Drone Crimes

Image: DonkeyHotey @ Flickr / CC 2.0
Image: DonkeyHotey @ Flickr / CC 2.0

By Jim Naureckas
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA, began hisNew York Times op-ed (2/21/16) with 24 paragraphs of dialogue illustrating how carefully the US government chooses drone targets so as not to put the innocent at risk:

The decision maker asks if there are civilians nearby.

“The family is in the main building. The guys we want are in the big guesthouse here.”

“They’re not very far apart.”

“Far enough.”…

He asks the probability of killing the targets if they use a GBU-12, a powerful 500-pound, laser-guided bomb.

“These guys are sure dead,” comes the reply. “We think the family’s OK.”

“You think they’re OK?”

“They should be.” But the analyst confesses it is impossible to be sure.

The “decision maker” opts for using smaller Hellfire missiles, with which “the family’s safe, but the bad guys might survive.” Then he goes with the 500-pound GBU, after learning that the targets are “big AQ operators. We’ve been trying to track them forever. They’re really careful. They’ve been hard to find. They’re the first team.”

Only after bringing this elaborate story to a happy ending—“The two targets are dead. The civilians have fled the compound. All are alive”—does Hayden reveal that the whole story is fiction (emphasis added):

The dialogue above, representative of many such missions, shows how hard the commanders and analysts work to get it right.

Well, no—since the dialogue is made up for an op-ed, it illustrates how far a former “decision maker” will go to convince the public that his hands are relatively free of innocent blood. Independent analysts, actually, say that a large number of civilians have been killed by the decisions Hayden made as CIA chief, as he acknowledges:

Critics assert that a high percentage of the people killed in drone strikes are civilians—a claim totally at odds with the intelligence I have reviewed—and that the strikes have turned the Muslim world against the United States, fueling terrorist recruitment.

Yes, “critics”—that is to say, people who have actually investigated the results of drone strikes, like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism—have found that at least 10 percent, and perhaps 24 percent or more, of people killed in Pakistan by US drones since 2004 were civilians. US drones have killed at least 172 Pakistani children, the BIJ found.

By contrast, the “intelligence” finds that drone strikes have killed almost no civiliansbecause intelligence officials take the Orwellian position that “military-age males” in the vicinity of a drone strike are by definition not civilians, a grim fact that the New York Times (5/29/12) has reported before:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: People in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.

You think?

Hayden painted a picture of US intelligence officials who anguish over the death of a child whose “grandfather had a garage full of dangerous chemicals, and he intended to use them, perhaps on Americans”—suggesting that drone strikes are a scalpel that occasionally and unavoidably nicks an innocent while surgically removing supervillains. That picture is belied by incidents like the December 12, 2013, drone strike on Aqabat Z’aj, Yemen, which killed 12 people—all members of a wedding party transporting a bride from her home village to that of her groom (Human Rights Watch, 2/14).

Such attacks result from the use of “signature strikes”—targeting unknown people whom the US deems to be acting suspiciously (like traveling in an armed convoy through the desert, which is not actually unusual behavior in Yemen). Wrote Hayden:

Critics said these so-called signature strikes were indiscriminate. They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.

Here’s a suggestion: If your encyclopedia is telling you to bomb wedding parties, it’s time to get a new encyclopedia.

But killing civilians because they didn’t know who they were bombing is not the worst thing that the drone program had done. Hayden writes that a review of video following a “successful strike” showed that the attack had killed

a frightened woman responding to another weapon that had just detonated…. We realized, once our after-action review was done, that we needed to put even more eyes on targets as they were being struck to try to avoid any future civilian casualties.

Actually, the drone program has deliberately targeted people like that—civilians responding to drone strikes—using a technique known as a “double tap,” when a lethal attack is followed shortly by a second strike to kill those who come to the scene to help. “The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals,” the BIJ (2/4/12) reported.

Hayden’s op-ed is long on fictional accounts of ultra-scrupulous drone planners worrying about striking civilians and completely lacking the real-life incidents where the US has mistakenly targeted weddings and deliberately hit funerals. That’s to be expected when you ask someone who has carried out what the United Nations and other international law experts have called illegal attacks to justify what they’ve done: They’re unlikely to confess to how many innocent lives their criminal actions have lost.

It’s especially unlikely when that person continues to benefit personally from the illegal program, as Hayden does. As the government transparency project Little Sis (2/22/16) noted after the op-ed was published, Hayden sits on the board of Motorola Solutions, which last year “made a strategic investment in CyPhy Works, a leading developer of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones,” as a press release (3/16/15) from the company declared. Motorola Solutions paid Hayden $240,125 for his services last year,Little Sis noted.

The muckraking site also pointed out that Hayden served from 2010 until 2015 on the board of Alion, a company that in 2012 “was awarded a $24 million contract to develop the US Navy’s unmanned and automatic weapons systems.” Alion is not required to disclose compensation for its board members.

The New York Times did not disclose Hayden’s conflict—though the Times‘ ethics ruleswould seem to prohibit outside contributors advocating on behalf of industries that they have a direct financial stake in. Why such rules would be broken or bent to allow a writer to make self-serving claims that have been disproved by the Times‘ own reporting is a question that op-editors ought to answer.

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR’s website.