If the Only News Is Good News and There Is No News …?

Tara McKelvey, the woman who wrote one of the most detailed stories on drone targeting (which has subsequently gotten John Rizzo into some trouble), has a CJR piece on the problems of reporting on drones. The whole thing is worth reading, but I want to take a number of quotes McKelvey includes out of order, starting with David Ignatius, noting the Administration’s flexibility in secrecy rules.

Ignatius, of the Post, explained that Obama administration officials are sometimes willing to discuss drone operations in an attempt to promote the White House’s counterterrorism strategy. In February 2010, for instance, Ignatius was able to write a detailed account of the escalation of drone strikes because officials were eager to demonstrate that Obama was more aggressive in his pursuit of al Qaeda than Bush was.

“These rules about covert activities can be bent when it becomes politically advantageous,” Ignatius said. “When it suits them, you get quite a detailed readout.”

That’s a sentiment Jonathan Landay echoes.

Journalists know that finding non-official sources is crucial in covering the drone war, especially under the tight-lipped Obama administration. “The only time I’m allowed to talk to senior staff or the nsc is for stories that make the administration look good,” McClatchy’s Landay said.

In other words, an experienced journalist reputed to be a mouthpiece, and an experienced journalists known for bucking the Administration propaganda leading up to the Iraq War. Both in agreement that the Administration won’t tell you anything unless it puts the Administration and its drone program in the best light.

Which is why I love this bit, which McKelvey puts right after a discussion about the clouded legality of the program.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council, who spoke only on condition he not be named, rebuffed questions about why the administration refuses to speak with reporters on the record about the program. “You’re going to have a lot of people on the outside, and they all love to talk,” he said. “We can’t do that.” And, the official added, if outsiders are talking about the drone war, “that means they don’t know very much.”

This NSC spokesperson may or may not be Tommy Vietor, who is, after all, the NSC spokesperson.

For McKelvey, this Tommy Vietor sound-alike basically claims he cannot comment. Both Ignatius (who ought to know) and Landay make it clear they would have comment if there were good news to share.

Which further adds to the evidence that where they refuse to give us evidence–as they have with Anwar al-Awlaki’s assassination–it’s because they have no good news to give.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

34 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    A spokesman for the White House National Security Council, who spoke only on condition he not be named . . .

    That kind of says it all, doesn’t it.

    Honest to God, I’d love to see reporters refuse to print this nonsense. Instead, say “I approached XXX, the official spokesman for the WH NSC, who refused to give a reaction if his/her name were attached to it. XXX did provide me with the official WH spin on this, but unless XXX is willing to put his/her name to it, they can spin their spin through someone else.”

  2. PeasantParty says:

    Why can’t whistleblowers have the same cover? Huh? Just what is it with journalist and dictation transcribers?

    I’m telling you, if you are American and do not search out news outside of the tv rambling heads you are lost. Colbert tells more news in his joke news show than American media does.

    Thanks Marcy. Telling us that official news will only come out if it is good news is no longer a suspicion.

  3. MadDog says:

    Earlier this week, Steve Aftergood over at Secrecy News published some new Congressional Research Service reports. One of the reports was this:

    U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems (55 page PDF), January 3, 2011

    When I read it at the time, I noted to myself that nowhere in the entire 55 page report was any discussion of the legal issues regarding the US government’s drone usage. Furthermore, nowhere was there any discussion of the ethical or moral issues involved in the US government’s use of drones.

    Both points underline something that Jane Mayer stated in the CJR piece:

    “…Drones are here to stay,” explained the New Yorker’s Mayer. “So being for or against their use isn’t really where the interesting controversy is at this point. The argument is over who is a legitimate target, how that is decided, what legal framework covers this sort of warfare, and how many innocent lives can be justified as so-called ‘collateral damage’ in a drone strike—morally, legally, and politically…”

    (My Bold)

    While I have a high opinion of Jane Mayer, the part of her statement that I bolded troubles me.

    It says to me that our government either never considered whether our drone warfare was “good” or “bad”, or if such consideration did take place, it was far from the eyes of the American public, in secret, and without our blessing.

    Sound familiar?

  4. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: The point I’m trying to make (successfully or not), and with all due regard to the fine, upstanding Legal Eagles who comment here, and whom I generally hold in high regard, is that our government, and yea, even our society and culture, seems to have devolved (yes, the opposite of evolved) into something that only considers whether the legal fine print is being adhered to.

    Funny, but I’ve always thought that prior to consideration of the legality of something, one is supposed to first consider the moral or ethical implications.

    You know, first consider whether something is right or wrong. Not whether there is some legal fine point that provides cover for one’s actions.

    Silly me.

  5. PeasantParty says:

    @MadDog: TWOOPH! As a matter of fact, the reprocussions of anything US are always withheld. The only reason that I could come up with after years of thinking about it is so NOBODY will have to finger point or be responsible.

  6. PeasantParty says:

    @MadDog: “drone warfare good or bad”

    Evidently it is HORRIBLY bad. Civilian deaths must be on the rise, but then we wouldn’t know because they don’t report that either.

  7. Twilight of the Bombs says:

    do you think that anything has changed since that CJR piece was published – May / June 2011 ?

  8. GKJames says:

    You mean I’ve had it wrong all these years when I simply assumed that only a third of any government mouthpiece utterance is based in reality? With respect to drones in particular, it’s precisely the absence of discussion of the questions raised by Jane Mayer which is disconcerting. One would’ve thought that the separation of powers argument alone would be enough for Congress to step up and restrain the Executive. No such luck.

  9. Gitcheegumee says:

    O/T

    Well,here’s oneAmerican mouthpiece that will sorely be missed. The one and only Etta James passed today….

    RIP,my dearest darling…(Wonder if Dark Black will do a tribute?)

  10. orionATL says:

    @MadDog:

    “… Jane Mayer stated in the CJR piece…”, etc.

    you may have “the highest regard” for jane meyer, but, as your gentle comment suggests, that regard probably isn’t based on this statement.

    this statement of jane meyer’s accepts as status quo a nascent situation in which there was no national discussion or citizen input before that status quo was alleged into existence – by jane meyer.

    some columnists and reporters seem to be shadow “realpolitik” practitioners who seek to convince us of their understanding of the insight and practical wisdom of realpolitik.

    there were jane meyers in the past, many, many of them; always oh so accepting of contemporary social and political power – of “reality”

    they told us, for example, with respect to nuclear power in the u.s., :

    “… [nuclear power is] here to stay,” explained the New Yorker’s Mayer. “So being for or against [its] use isn’t really where the interesting controversy is at this point…”

    in addition to the wisdom of meyers’ statement on drones, note how she refers to “…where the interesting controversy is at this point…”.

    reporters love controversy.

    their editors and publishers love controversy.

    hell, i love controversy.

    but where the controversy is should not be confused with what is fixed social and political reality, especially where that reality involves a potentially unwise, illegal, possibly corrupt realpolitik.

  11. MadDog says:

    @PeasantParty: Like many here, I’ve wondered whether we will ever see the OLC’s legal opinion on the US government’s usage of drones.

    But I can guarantee we will never see a Moral or Ethical opinion because neither exists.

    When you really think about it, there isn’t much space between a David Addington/ John Yoo mindset and a Harold Koh/Jeh Johnson mindset. Both have been entirely focused on the legal nuances of US government policies without word one on the moral and ethical implications of those policies.

    And as I indicated in my thoughts about Jane Mayer’s comments, the state of our public discourse on the US government’s drone policies is such that there is no apparent “controversy” about things such as the lack of moral and ethical considerations.

  12. rosalind says:

    Friday night palate cleanser: for the super geeks in teh crowd, the “Star Wars Uncut: Director’s Cut” is up on Youtube for your viewing pleasure. this is the full-length crowd sourced scene for scene replication of the film, in all manner of styles (live action, animated).

    it is really an amazing feat, and incredibly watchable. the opening crawl alone is frackin’ hilarious.

    the comments so far tend to a single theme: if SOPA passes, kiss this sort of achievement good-bye.

  13. MadDog says:

    @orionATL: Yah, so the question for me is how did we get this way where moral and ethical considerations are so untethered from our decision-making and so easily dismissed from the public discourse?

  14. Gitcheegumee says:

    @MadDog:

    Well, if you don’t mind me butting in,maybe its because there is such a lack of skin in the game.

    Ever since the draft was dissolved, it seems honor and accountability have disappeared also;strangely enough,right about the time unions were being dismantled ,too.

    Jmho.

  15. MadDog says:

    And speaking of drones, via Fox News (Ugh!):

    EXCLUSIVE: Pakistan official says US military will be allowed to return, but not CIA drones

    “U.S. military trainers will be invited back into Pakistan “as early as April or May,” but the nation has ruled out allowing CIA drones back into the country, Fox News has learned…

    …The stipulations will include no covert CIA or military operations on the ground in Pakistan, and no unauthorized incursions into its airspace. Drones, which are the CIA’s biggest weapon against militants hiding in the tribal belt dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan, “can never return,” a senior Pakistani official told Fox News…

    …In return, Pakistan would allow back U.S. military trainers, including special forces teams, and a resumption of close cooperation with the CIA in targeting militants who use the Pakistani side of the border as a safe haven and breeding ground for extremism. It would also reopen the Torkham and Chaman border crossings into Afghanistan, which have been closed to NATO supply convoys since the attack…”

  16. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And I hope I don’t stretch Fair Use to its breaking point, but I just had to include this additional tidbit from the Fox News piece:

    “…Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said this week that ties “are on hold until we start re-engaging,” but Pakistan is now motivated by the U.S. elections to move forward swiftly in rebuilding trust between the countries. Islamabad fears that if foundation stones are not laid before presidential campaigning begins in earnest in the summer, it will not be able to renegotiate with Washington until the middle of next year.

    But the senior official suggested there might be a benefit to waiting.

    “We would prefer it if there was a Republican government again,” he said. “Pakistan has always done well with the Republicans. Historically, over the decades, we have always had difficulty doing business with the Democrats…”

  17. orionATL says:

    @MadDog:

    that is a truly excellent question; really the fundamental question of our times.

    my (glib, unthoughtthrough (that’s german) ) answer:

    democratic legislators (and presidential candidate obama) have not been held in the last decade any standard of performanc or honesty, especially not held to a “perform or lose officet” standard.

    ordinary dems have been so terrified both of the right-wing bogeyman and of creating any kind of political rowe,

    that their dem congressscoundrels have been able to get away with anything – “what? you don’t want to support us based on our “accomplishments” for the powerful? well, wait until your failure to support us no matter what legislation we support lets the republicans get into power again.”

    at that “scary” prospect, ordinary dems bow, and kowtow, and forget their morality.

  18. P J Evans says:

    @GKJames:
    Congress would have to find out about it from a public source before they’d officially notice that they’re unemployed. /s

    Congress is apparently paid to NOT do their job these days – with a few, very few, exceptions. And those aren’t completely reliable.

  19. phred says:

    @MadDog: I see your larger (and very important point), but I would parse Meyer’s passage a little differently. Drones are here to stay, in the same way that steel, guns, land mines, atomic bombs, etc., etc., etc., are here to stay. In that sense she is right that the real issue is how we decide to use them whether in warfare or for peaceful purposes of various sorts.

    And that is the conversation that the administration and their enablers seem to work night and day to prevent. To me, that is the more crucial issue, now that the technology exists we are to pretend that we cannot decide to ban specific uses of them (e.g., as we have banned things like mustard gas and such). Rubbish. We can choose not to wage drone warfare if we wish.

    Of course, allowing the public to make such a choice (instead of the purveyors of the devices and their purchased public servants who buy and deploy them) requires the restoration of our democracy. So I don’t anticipate any progress on drones until we solve our larger political existential crisis.

  20. bmaz says:

    @orionATL: Heh, after my books weren’t banned post the other day, neither one of us are likely going to be welcomed by Salon anytime soon.

    BIGGER than all that!

  21. GKJames says:

    @P J Evans

    Congress caters to, and reflects, the mob. Which is why progressives are at a perpetual disadvantage and the law suffers.

  22. MadDog says:

    And more drone news via Reuters:

    “Somalia’s Shabaab says air strike kills foreign fighter

    A missile launched from an unmanned aircraft killed a foreign fighter with Somalia’s al Shabaab rebel group outside the capital Saturday, the al Qaeda-linked militant group said.

    The militants, who earlier claimed explosions in the town of Elasha had been caused by artillery fired by African Union forces, said the air strike targeted Bilal el Berjawi as he travelled in a car.

    “At around 1400 (1100 GMT), a U.S. drone targeted our mujahideen. One foreigner, a Lebanese with a British passport died,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab’s chief spokesman, told Reuters by telephone…”

  23. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And even more drone news from Reuters:

    Exclusive: How Pakistan helps the U.S. drone campaign

    The death of a senior al Qaeda leader in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal badlands, the first strike in almost two months, signaled that the U.S.-Pakistan intelligence partnership is still in operation despite political tensions.

    The Jan 10 strike — and its follow-up two days later — were joint operations, a Pakistani security source based in the tribal areas told Reuters.

    They made use of Pakistani “spotters” on the ground and demonstrated a level of coordination that both sides have sought to downplay since tensions erupted in January 2011 with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore.

    “Our working relationship is a bit different from our political relationship,” the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “It’s more productive…”

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