When watchdog meets lapdog

The Times's kill list story should be followed up on the ground

The New York Times’s report last week on the Obama administration’s secret “kill list” of Al Qaeda suspects and the president’s personal involvement in managing it set off a torrent of commentary among national-security watchers, with some very different assessments.

Charles Krauthammer observed in the Washington Post that the article could have been titled “Barack Obama: Drone Warrior.” “Great detail on how Obama personally runs the assassination campaign,” the piece said. “On-the-record quotes from the highest officials. This was no leak. This was a White House press release.”

ProPublica, by contrast, was so impressed by what it called the Times’s “exposé” that it decided to offer a collection of the “best pieces of watchdog journalism on Obama’s national security policies.”

On the NPR public radio show To The Point, host Warren Olney called the article’s reporting “extraordinary” but felt compelled to ask his guest, Jo Becker (who co-wrote the story with Scott Shane), “Do you think you got a PR job from the Obama White House?”* No, Becker predictably said, citing the article’s multiple sourcing and less-than-flattering revelations.

So which was it—lapdog journalism or watchdog journalism? A bit of both, I’d say. The Times reporters clearly enjoyed extraordinary access to high-level officials, who no doubt felt President Obama’s image would benefit from an inside look at his steely effort to kill terrorists. And the piece served up some buttery details, like the president’s efforts to apply the “just war” theories of Christian theologians to modern conflict. But rather than simply transcribe White House claims, Becker and Shane talked to many people both in and out of the administration to provide a valuable look at a previously off-limits area of policy-making.

We learned of the White House’s use of macabre “baseball cards” bearing biographical information about potential targets; the controversial accounting method it used to calculate civilian casualties, with one former senior intelligence official saying the method led to “deceptive estimates” of such casualties; and the use of “signature” strikes against targets considered legitimate based on their mere presence in training camps or other suspicious sites. In one especially eye-opening passage, the article noted the joke among some State Department officials that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp.

The inclusion of such skeptical voices made the piece far more analytical than most “insider” accounts, such as those routinely produced by the genre’s most renowned practitioner, Bob Woodward. Even Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, an often-lacerating critic of the Times’s national-security coverage, wrote that the article “sheds considerable light on the character of the Democratic Commander in Chief.” (Greenwald called attention to the glaring contrast between the administration’s ready release of classified data when it suits its purposes and its remorseless pursuit of whistleblowers whose leaks don’t.)

Still, I think the Times’s work is only half done. After chronicling the White House’s work on targeted killings, it should mount a similarly intensive investigation of the impact of those killings on the ground. With the administration claiming that the drone strikes cause minimal civilian casualties, the paper should put that claim to the test. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism in London, which tracks the casualties of US covert attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the number of civilians killed in such attacks runs into the many hundreds. (On On the Media, Brooke Gladstone ran a useful interview with Chris Woods, a reporter at the bureau.)

On the same day the Times ran its piece on the Obama kill list, the Washington Post featured an article on the effect of the targeted killings in Yemen. Across the rugged southern region of that country, Sudarsan Raghavan reported, “an escalating campaign of US drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for Al Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.” Conducting more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights workers, and officials in southern Yemen, Raghavan found that many of the “militants” whom local security officials claimed were killed in the strikes were actually civilians.

By launching its own investigation in Yemen and elsewhere, the Times might be able to find out what those guys doing jumping jacks were really up to.

Correction: This article originally reported that the public radio program To the Point is produced by NPR. In fact, the program is co-produced by Public Radio International and KCRW, a Los Angeles-area public radio station. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.