Yet rather than demand more consistent transparency from officials or undertake investigations that delve into the program, journalists often have simply relied on what US and Pakistani officials have told them. When reporters depend too heavily on government sources to report on a war, they end up following the narrative that White House officials have created, and in this way provide a one-sided view that obscures reality. The aerial strikes in Pakistan have been underway for nearly a decade, and yet many questions surrounding their use remain unasked and unanswered.
A Shadowy World
The Pakistani media have covered civilian deaths from drone attacks more consistently than Western reporters. Tallies from leading Pakistani media organizations report that as many as eighteen hundred civilians and mid- and low-level fighters have been killed in attacks since Obama took office, as compared to the twenty “high-value” militants the US managed to kill in that period, according to New America Foundation researchers. The number of civilians and low-level militants who have been killed are sketchy and have thus far proved impossible for US journalists to verify. News stories often cite anonymous Pakistani officials in their accounting of the dead.
“You’re left with this kind of shadowy world, and you pick up every discrete fact that you can—knowing all the while that you’re only getting a glimpse of something and not the whole thing,” said Yochi Dreazen, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and now a senior correspondent for National Journal.
Jonathan S. Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, said that when reporting in Pakistan, he has been forced to rely on the few Waziristan journalists and local officials who are reachable by cell phone for accounts of strikes. “There’s a network of tribal journalists who are very good, but one doesn’t know if you’re getting an exact count because you can’t eyeball it,” Landay said. “You can go in as an embed with the Pakistani military, but all that’s a dog-and-pony show.”
Pakistanis following news of the war get a completely different picture than those in the United States. For the past two years, there has been a drumbeat of death in the Pakistani media, with headlines like these on the website of Geo News, one of the biggest television networks in Pakistan: “U.S. Drone Kills 22 in North Waziristan”; “U.S. Missile Attack Kills 30”; “Death Toll in U.S. Drone Strikes Climbs to 19.” The victims are often impoverished teenagers who have gotten caught up in the Taliban, and are now dead, according to former CIA officials who had operated in the region. The picture that emerges through this war coverage—including in Pakistani newspapers like Dawn and The Daily Times—is one of incremental killing of bandits, drug dealers, and marginal characters by airborne missiles.
When the Western media do attempt to cover drone strikes that miss any high-value targets—and which, consequently, no US official is willing to discuss—their stories are thin. An example is a July 8, 2009, Associated Press report that ran in The Washington Post: U.S. DRONE ATTACK KILLS 12 IN NORTHWEST. Like dozens of other stories about the killings in Waziristan, the article tells readers nothing about those who were killed, why they were killed, or whether killing them had an impact on the terrorist groups that were targeted. Western reporters often learn of drone strikes from stories published in Pakistani media and, when they write their own stories, the reporters necessarily rely on local Pakistani stringers for details of the strikes beyond any scant Pakistani government information.
Pakistani citizens, not surprisingly, denounce the US drone attacks. In December, people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a 2009 strike and who has filed a lawsuit against the US, charging a CIA official for their deaths. In March, protests broke out in two more remote Pakistani towns. Student activists burned a US flag and an Obama effigy at one protest, saying the strikes were a violation of international human rights.