Why NYT Dissed the ‘Drone Papers’

When the “Downing Street Memo” surfaced in the UK in 2006 revealing that the intelligence to justify the Iraq War had been “fixed” around the policy, the mainstream U.S. media largely ignored it. The same has now happened with the leak of documents about President Obama’s drone war, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

For that slice of the American public that still depends heavily on major daily newspapers as their main source of news, they might not even know that the on-line publication The Intercept has published a package of alarming drone-assassination articles based on secret military documents provided by an anonymous intelligence whistleblower.

These “Drone Papers” show, among other disclosures, that the U.S. government has been lying about the number of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For every targeted individual assassinated, another five or six non-targeted individuals are killed, giving the lie to the Obama administration’s long-standing claims of careful, precision killing of specific targets in order to avoid killing civilians.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

The Intercept, relying on a cache of slides provided to it by its whistleblower source, posted its package of eight articles on Oct. 15, 2015. Among those picking up on the stories was the Huffington Post (which ran excerpts), and other outlets, including The Guardian, Newsweek, New York Magazine, NPR, the PBS NewsHour, CNN , which generally cited some of The Intercept’s main findings or speculated about a “second [Edward] Snowden” coming forth as a national security whistleblower.

As of this writing, the premier mainstream publications that carry influence beyond their own immediate readership in setting the nation’s news agenda , The New York Times and The Washington Post , have carried virtually nothing about what is in these explosive documents, which cover the 2011-2013 period. The documents show the inner workings, and the deadly failures, of the Joint Special Operations Command’s targeted killing programs, a/k/a assassinations, which President Obama signs off on.

The Post so far appears to have ignored The Intercept’s stories; The Times , in a move lightly criticized by the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan  ,  managed to attach a whopping two paragraphs about The Intercept’s scoop to the end of a story about Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan until 2017. Those who didn’t read beyond the first few paragraphs of the troops-in-Afghanistan story would have missed altogether that bare mention of The Intercept’s scoop in the article’s 24th and 25th paragraphs, as I did.

Among the findings derived from the documents, which Post and Times readers have been deprived of: While drones do kill some of their intended targets, they kill far more non-targeted people who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone strike (or who happen to be using the cell phone or computer of someone who was targeted).

In one major special operations program in northeastern Afghanistan called Operation Haymaker (the only finding the Times mentioned in its two paragraphs), 35 individuals targeted for assassination were actually killed in drone strikes, but 219 other non-targeted individuals were also killed.

This meant, The Intercept reported, that during one five-month period of Operation Haymaker, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalis where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”

All those killed, intended target or not, are designated “enemy killed in action” (EKIA), the source told The Intercept. Official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties, the source said, are “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”

Now at first I thought it could be that the Times and the Post were working diligently to match The Intercept stories, attempting before printing anything to obtain and carefully review similar sets of slides as The Intercept used for its stories. After all, The Intercept’s articles didn’t just appear overnight, but rather “were produced by a team of reporters and researchers that has spent months analyzing the documents.”

Perhaps these mainstream outlets were also attempting to take the story beyond what The Intercept has posted, I speculated. If so, we should all eagerly await the results.

But at least as far as the Times is concerned, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan questioned Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and the editor for national security coverage, William Hamilton, as to “why the story had received relatively short shrift.”

In response, Sullivan wrote, “Both said they found the project a worthy one. They and several Washington editors looked it over with interest, they said, and agreed that there was new detail in it. But they didn’t see it as something that warranted its own story, at least not at the moment, they said.”

The Times editors’ responses smack of that old chestnut of an excuse in the newsroom when some other publication scoops you: “We had that story already. Nothing much new here. Let’s kiss it off with two paragraphs.”

Before commenting further on the Times’s editors’ fairly inane response, it must be noted that over the past few years New York Times reporter Scott Shane has written some revealing stories about the U.S. drone program, without benefit of documents such as The Intercept is reporting on.

Shane’s articles included one earlier this year noting that, despite reassurances from the President on down, the U.S. is often unsure about whom it is actually killing in drone strikes, a major disclosure reinforced by The Intercept documents and its source.

And in May 2012, Shane and Jo Becker were the first to report that President Obama signed off on a secret “kill list” of individuals to be targeted in drone strikes. The reporters at the same time also revealed that Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

But this past significant coverage does not excuse why the Times and much of the mainstream press has so far not reported even a good timely summary of what The Intercept has published in its articles, which advance the drone story beyond what has previously been reported.

As revealing as the Times stories were at the time, they lacked what The Intercept now has: actual secret military documents that back up what its exclusive source is telling it, and that provide far more detail and data about the program than what was printed earlier.

The Times editors’ explanations just don’t wash. Do these editors really believe that one major drone story every year or so is all that is required, even in the face of vital new information published by a competitor?

In a newspaper full of wall-to-wall stories on Donald Trump, Republican Benghazi shenanigans, the ever-shifting permutations of the Democratic and Republican presidential races in Iowa and New Hampshire, stories all full of much the same elements one day to the next, it boggles the mind to think the Times believes it has “done” its quota of drone-atrocity stories for the time being. That they saw nothing in The Intercept’s stories “that warranted its own story” in the Times.

Do Times editors believe we, their reading public, don’t need to know anything more about this dreadful subject than what they told us in articles last spring and in the spring of 2012? That what Shane reported last May, as substantial a story as it was, is the last word in drone murders? The editors even acknowledged to Sullivan that The Intercept stories contained “new detail.” Why not share all that new detail with its readers?

The Intercept, after all, is a reliable, hard-charging news organization staffed by several of the nation’s top national security investigative reporters, and no editor at any other news operation should have any hesitancy about reporting a summary of its drone findings, backed up as they are by insider documents.

And in reporting the summary, of course crediting The Intercept in the same manner print news media and broadcast newscasts frequently do when they themselves don’t have a particular important story from their own reporters. It happens all the time.

Mainstream news organizations have an obligation to provide their readers with important, credible, timely news reports, even when the report comes from a competing, and reputable, news organization, and even if they might be working on their own story which they hope to publish at some point.

Margaret Sullivan didn’t come down hard on the Times for all but ignoring The Intercept’s stories, noting that since the newspaper “has done so much on this subject, it may be understandable that only a brief mention of The Intercept’s scoop has been made so far.”

Still, she added, “given the revelations in the released documents, as well as the mere existence of a major intelligence leaker who is not Edward Snowden , Times journalists would have served readers well to do more on ‘The Drone Papers.’ They also could consider doing so in the future.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of readers of the Times and the Post and other mainstream news outlets are being denied actual news that has serious implications for the ways the United States wages the endless wars this nation has been recklessly embarked on for the last 14 years.

Jeremy Scahill, the award-winning reporter who headed The Intercept’s reporting team on the Drone Papers, described the importance of the documents this way: “Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence [metadata from cellphones and computers], an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and, due to a preference for assassination rather than capture, an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.”

Scahill said the information in these secret slides is “especially relevant today as the U.S. military intensifies its drone strikes and covert actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”

Tragically, there are few voices in the mainstream press and in Congress raising any alarms about the proliferation of what Scahill calls the borderless U.S. “unconventional wars that employ special operations forces at the tip of the spear”

Like so much else in the never-ending global war on Terror, Inc., the euphemistically named targeted killings have become part of the military landscape which most Americans passively accept as just the way things are, if they pay any attention at all. There are many brave souls around the country who regularly protest and get arrested at military drone sites and drone contractors’ facilities, or at the Pentagon and White House protesting against drones and U.S. militarism generally, but there is no mass movement.

With only a relative handful of people protesting, and with no congressional hearings and only sporadic news coverage raising any serious questions about the morality and legality of targeted assassinations under international law, the policy isn’t likely to change. Not unless and until a critical mass of well-organized citizens rises up in revulsion and anger at these cowardly killings and endless wars being carried out in our name.

And one big way the public should be able to find out more about the horrors of drone warfare, and how it fits into never-ending U.S. militarism, is from a news media that sees it as its mission to report about such subjects in all their terror and gruesome death aspects.

This topic truly is one of life and death for many people, particularly the beleaguered citizens of the greater Middle East. And it carries deep implications for our democracy, as well. As Scahill wrote about the Drone Papers:

“Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.”

The normalization of the United States as prime International Assassin: Somehow, that sounds like news, scary news that the American people need to know, and need to hear again and again.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for  The Washington Post,  The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract  and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

20 comments for “Why NYT Dissed the ‘Drone Papers’

  1. November 6, 2015 at 18:14

    Good article.

    Please change your term for micromanaged corporatist minority story telling outlets.

  2. Schwere Punkt
    November 6, 2015 at 14:58

    When this does get the coverage it deserves, the slant will be geared toward the psychological problems the drone strikes are causing our “poor” and “heroic” operators. Short shrift will be given to the real victims or their families and friends. At most, a few niggling checks will be written here or there and much verbiage about how a “barbaric” enemy has “forced” us to behave like animals. The blame will be placed on our alleged “enemies” and politicians — including Obama — who — wait for it — hate America and the military. Oh the irony . . .

    • Schwere Punkt
      November 6, 2015 at 15:01

      Lol, I see there is an edit function. ;)

  3. steve b
    November 6, 2015 at 07:52

    my wild hunch is, the “dismissive silence” reveals the intellectual integrity (or lack there of), as well as the agenda, of those who own, support, read, and are associated with NYT / WP. another wild guess is, those are the same group that develop, operate, benefit from, and support the drone assassination program. they will be silent until the day that their “enemy” employ the same assassination program against them.

  4. Bob Van Noy
    November 5, 2015 at 15:53

    Thanks Joe, it means a lot…

  5. Bob Van Noy
    November 5, 2015 at 11:55

    “The normalization of the United States as prime International Assassin: Somehow, that sounds like news — scary news that the American people need to know, and need to hear again and again.”

    So true, John Hanrahan. There is another dimension that I often think about that is never discussed, and that is honor. The military makes a big deal about one’s honor, yet where is the honor in drone warfare? A “pilot” sits in an air conditioned space near Los Vegas, flies his drone, and fires his weapon at the designated “target”. Later he goes home or to the club to do what? discuss politics, watch football, help with homework? His life and his commander’s life is never at risk. The decision motivating fight or flight is never involved so it’s, in my opinion, inhuman and thus it’s a war crime. The commander in chief, President Obama has never addressed this issue with us, his constituents. Surely this was the kind of warfare addressed at Nuremberg, and I for one think that it is criminal and inhuman.

    • Gregory Kruse
      November 5, 2015 at 12:50

      There’s at least two of us.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 5, 2015 at 12:57

      Bob, I agree with the core of your argument. I also know, how arguing for honor in war, goes all the way back to replacing the bow with the musket, or replacing the cavalry’s horses with divisions of tanks. Wouldn’t it be great if politicians, and leaders, were to stand at the front of their attacking forces? Not, only would honor be represented once again, but citizens would be guaranteed that their leaders, have some skin (real skin) in the game. No, done of this will ever work. Mankind always seems able to out do himself, when it comes to his developing even more terrible weapons of war. There is no honor. Honor, is something the officers cheer about, to make themselves feel good. What, is really needed is a worldwide de escalation of war toys, and I don’t see this happening, anytime soon. Always, enjoy your comments Bob, keeping posting, its always nice to know there are leveled headed people out there such as yourself.

    • walkshills
      November 11, 2015 at 01:11

      There is a price to pay for the acts that drone pilots commit.

      in a Feb. 23, 2013, story by James Dao in the NY Times was reporting that drone pilots were susceptible to PTSD.

      ‘The Air Force has also conducted research into the health issues of drone crew members. In a 2011 survey of nearly 840 drone operators, it found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots, and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators, reported “high operational stress.” Those crews cited long hours and frequent shift changes as major causes.’

      This year on July 12, Pratap Catteree on TomDispatch.com was reporting a shortage of drone pilots, the dimensions of the actual much broader team to guide the drone, and an increasing rate of psychological problems:

      ‘These overworked, under-trained, underpaid, very young drone personnel are now starting to experience psychological trauma from exposure to endless killing missions. They are the ones who see and have to live with the grim scenes of what is so bloodlessly called “collateral damage.”’

      So, while there are sources such as this about the drones actual results that reach a smaller than mass media audience, there are also these participants that are becoming psychological casualties and our own indigenous form of collateral damage. It may be a slow osmosis, but I think this spreads quickly once it hits a threshold. You can be doing what we are without inflicting internal blowback in the individuals operating the systems as well as the institutions dictating it. Time will tell which is more dangerous.

      • walkshills
        November 11, 2015 at 01:13

        That’s Catterjee…and in last graph, ‘You can’t be doing…’

      • walkshills
        November 11, 2015 at 01:15

        That’s Catterjee….and in the last graph: “You can’t be doing…”

  6. Rob
    November 5, 2015 at 10:46

    A drone ‘assassination’ is equivalent to placing a bomb in a bar that military personnel frequently happen to go to for a drink. You may well eliminate your intended target, but you know for a fact you will injure and kill civilians. But hey, those civilians were colluding with the enemy right?
    This idea of ‘collateral damage’ in the public imagination denotes honestly accidentally injuring innocent bystanders. But in practical fact, with full knowledge that the action proposed will definitely injure others, is ‘collateral damage’ the correct term? Perhaps ‘acceptable casualties’ would be more honest.
    The ‘acceptable casualties’ all have friends and families who are understandably angry. From the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ much of the continued cycle of violence was due to these blood feuds. In the ‘Drone Wars’ every assassination leaves many friends or relatives in a blood feud with the perpetrators.

  7. Bart
    November 4, 2015 at 22:00

    The Sullivan piece has been updated.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    November 4, 2015 at 17:49

    But sooner or later, the American people will know. Not for certain, but they’ll suspect. It will be the kind of dawning realization that may have occurred to the residents of Hamburg or Dresden. America had its Stalingrag in Iraq…the grim realization that victory could only be achieved by manipulating the definitions of strategic objectives. Now, we have resorted to V-weapons – the 21st century version of “buzz bombs” and V-2 rockets. There are no pilots shot down or prisoners captured, so the “Homeland” suffers no anguish. Meanwhile, the “whistle-blowers” become the story, not the crimes they expose. But the victims continue to die as the world watches…and somewhere, someone is plotting revenge.

    • Peter Loeb
      November 5, 2015 at 07:15


      “But sooner or later, the American people will know….” F. G. Sanford,
      above comment

      Sadly I see no basis for such a toothferry awakening that Sanford
      predicts. We are still talking about Chalabi in events of years ago
      although significant for today’s analyses.

      The Left is too often overwhelmed by its own illusions and
      myopic optimism,

      Who, for example, are the Chalibis in the Ukraine or
      in Syria or in Israel?

      (Answer: I have many well-founded hunches but no
      “proof” or evidence. Suffice to say that many analyses
      of others give no cause for such optimism either in
      Consortiumnews or in other non MSM organs.

      Instead the death of the oppressed continues each
      day. I am sure if I accept what the oppressors
      themselves maintain, that each death is justified.
      In Israel by Israel’s “security needs” all oppression
      is ultimately justified. Syrians who support
      B. Assad have no such needs and are regularly
      blown to bits. Etc.

      “God Bless the USA and Democracy!” Surely
      as Vladimir Jabotinsky pointed out, the oppressed
      are not by blood from a superior race. How unfortunate
      for them! Despite this, Jabotinsky credits “Arabs” —
      despite their inferiority by blood— with the ability
      to realize when what has been theirs will no longer
      be theirs, their lives, their homes, their children…
      THE IRON WALL, 1920’s)

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

      • F. G. Sanford
        November 5, 2015 at 10:11

        This sounds a little like “normalcy bias” – the tendency to discount or fail to react appropriately to a threat simply because it has never happened before. As the lunatic minions of vulturized exploitation of “conservative” ideology continue to strip Americans of the very benefits of citizenship – through tax cuts for the rich, cutting entitlements paid for by middle and lower class sacrifice, by enriching themselves at the expense of a captive wage-slave labor market, and by exploiting for personal profit national resources which rightfully belong to all of us, they are slowly but surely creating a crisis of loyalty. The Paul Ryans, Scott Walkers, Kochs, Bushes, and others of their ilk continue to erode the very benefits associated with being “American” while at the same time creating vast legions of resentful enemies abroad. The awakening may not comprise an academic awareness of the root causes as you point out, but as Yogi Berra might have put it, America’s future ain’t what it used to be. Propaganda can hide the nefarious motives, but the outcomes will be plain to see. This crisis of loyalty in my estimation is the gravest national security threat we face…and the “analysts” ain’t got a clue.

        • Joe Tedesky
          November 5, 2015 at 13:18

          Okay, maybe since I do look up to both of you, as your comments always reflect a certain kind of brilliance, I lack, I think the two of you make a great point individually. Peter, I’m with you. I don’t see any evidence pointing towards the American public even coming close to it’s breaking down into tears, over what their country has done, to the world. On the other hand, F.G. seems to be describing a day of American reckoning, based on a failing economy, or something like that. Peter, what F.G. is talking about is someday going to happen. F.G., what Peter is having angst over, is when will this occur. Do I understand what the two if you are saying? I only hope I do. America, is suffering much from it’s dishonest news coverage. I don’t know what, or how, the American public will be brought out of it’s sleep, but history would prove, that there will be something that will deliver this wake up call. I just hope, we may all survive it. I didn’t settle any argument here, did I, but time will only tell.

    • Gregory Kruse
      November 5, 2015 at 14:31

      Their V-weapons were very inaccurate and aimed at civilian populations, but at least they were fighting against forces of comparable power. Ours are much, much more accurate and aimed at individuals, but we are an enormous power fighting against an almost negligible power. Trouble is, you can’t kill enough Russians, Chinese, and Iranians one or two at a time. We will have to bring out the big guns eventually if we stay on this path.

  9. Joe Tedesky
    November 4, 2015 at 17:39

    When, and especially if, a story such as this drone story makes the MSM news, you can be sure it will be reported with an ample amount of spin. The kind of spin, which will give average Americans the kind of mine set, which will simply allow them to give in and say, “well shit happens”. It’s another day, and another dollar, in America’s continuing fight for the spread of democracy, and freedom. At, least that’s what they are told to believe. Most Americans want to be good Americans, that’s why they accept standing in TSA lines, when boarding a plane. The American news media, at least the big news outlets, sell blah-blah-blah packaged rubbish everyday to the American naïve public. With hundredths of TV stations on cable TV, you would think at least one would be reporting the news in a honest, and truthful way. Sadly, all the cable networks are owned by the same corporate sponsors, who demand that the news stories the public hears, is reported in the fashion they prefer. I wouldn’t be here, if it had been another way.

  10. Jay
    November 4, 2015 at 16:23

    The “thinking” at the Times is probably that “Greenwald had his day in 2013 with the Snowden thing.”

    Bezos is likely an investor in drone makers, and he personally owns the WaPo.

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