A reporter in Ohio goes on the attack over drones

Fox 19's Ben Swann makes waves with tough questions for president about kill list

OHIO — While it’s rare for a local television reporter to score a one-on-one interview with the president of the United States, the opportunity does arise in the heat of the campaign season. And a Cincinnati TV reporter this week took advantage of his few precious minutes with President Obama to tackle a legally confounding and politically contentious issue ignored by the lion’s share of the national media—the existence of a presidential “kill list” aimed at taking out terrorists.

Ben Swann, a political reporter for Fox 19, made his interview with Obama the centerpiece of a Tuesday “Reality Check” segment, which appeared online under the blunt title, “How does he justify having a kill list?” The segment centered on the practice of using drones to attack individual terrorists identified by the administration, including U.S. citizens who have been killed without due process. Here’s the video (unedited footage of the full seven-minute interview, which touches on some other national security topics, is here):

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As a May article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The New York Times reported, the drone strategy has proved effective at killing individuals the U.S. targets. But the policies have also raised thorny legal questions about the constitutionality of presidential-ordered killings. Some observers, the Times noted, believe the drone strike approach is driven in part by a desire not to capture terrorism suspects, and then be confronted by the question of what to do with them.

This is not the sort of material that is often covered on local newscasts. But in his segment Swann dove straight into the material, noting the “enormous constitutional ramifications” related to the kill list and the targeting of American citizens in particular.

His first question for the president was this: “On that list have been U.S. citizens who have not been afforded a trial, including Anwar al-Awlaki. How do you or any president for that matter, regardless of party or person, utilize that power to assassinate a U.S. citizen?”

Obama responded evasively, telling Swann that the question was based on news reports “that have never been confirmed by me and I don’t talk about our national security decisions in that way.”

Back in the studio, Swann responded to that remark by pointing out that members of Obama’s administration had already leaked the information, presumably with his authorization. (The Times article, which has been at the center of a controversy over selective leaks, cites interviews with “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers.) Swann did something similar later in the segment: After Obama said that killing people who pose imminent threats to the U.S. will help bring troops in Afghanistan home, the reporter pointed out that many of the drone strikes have taken place far from that country, in Yemen.

Swann’s wrap-up, in which he asserts his own view on the constitutional questions:

The way the president played this issue with us is really quite telling. When questioned about the constitutionally of a president, any president, having the power to order the death of U.S. citizens, he claims he never said he has a kill list and can’t discuss it further. A constitutional lawyer turned president using the power that violates the most basic principal in the Bill of Rights, leaking his use of it when it is politically expedient, then claiming it can’t be discussed when it is not. And that is Reality Check.

(Obama, it should be noted, was more expansive in an interview the next day with CNN’s Jessica Yellin.)

Swann’s report generated a storm of links on Twitter, along with praise from The Huffington Post and civil libertarian journalists like The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald.

He also earned high marks from a pair of experts I spoke with on Thursday. Gregory Johnsen, a Near East Studies scholar at Princeton University whose book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia will be released soon, called Swann’s interview unusual.

“In an election year dominated by the economy and typical political rhetoric that you hear from both parties, I was surprised to see the issue of drones brought up, especially since it is very popular with the American public,” Johnsen said. “This is an important issue that is largely overlooked, with the exception of only a few national media outlets.”

And Joshua Foust, a fellow with the nonpartisan think tank American Security Project who is leading a new study on the use of drones, said Swann highlighted the subject very capably.

“He raised these issues directly with the president, which few national security reporters have done. He was definitely asking the right kinds of questions,” said Foust, who is also a correspondent at The Atlantic and a former CJR contributor. “In terms of national reporting, I’d like to see more of this in the national press. Actually getting officials on the record is becoming more and more rare.”

The direct questioning of Obama is what made this interview go viral, but this week’s segment was just the latest in a series of kill list-related stories Swann has covered for more than a year, including the first failed attempt by the U.S. to take out Awlaki; the subsequent killing of Awlaki and a companion, Samir Khan, who was also an American; an exploration of the constitutionality of the president ordering the killing of a U.S. citizen; a segment related to other national reports about the kill list, and comments made by former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich during a debate. That history of reporting likely equipped him with the traits that Friedersdorf of The Atlantic observed in the Obama interview: “deep knowledge, reflection, logical analysis, and a willingness to challenge authority.”

Swann, who has been with the Cincinnati station for about 18 months, does three Reality Checks a week, often using the segments to bring added scrutiny to political rhetoric. The segment has a national and international following with viewers in 30 countries, he told me, and he has more than 42,000 followers on his Facebook page.

“We look at issues other media is not looking at,” Swann said. “This has been a question discussed in the past and we had a lot of people talking about it. There’s been an enormous concern about the drone programs and a lot of issues go to the constitutionality.”

If his goal was to spur more discussion, he succeeded.

“People have been quick to push back and say we should not have asked the question in the first place. A lot of vitriol came out,” Swann said. “The responses have been very interesting, but nationally they have been very positive.”

Though he had a chance to interview Obama because of the presidential campaign, Swann does not see the drone strategy of the kill list as a partisan issue, since both parties appear to support the concept. But there is an important underlying question, he said.

“There is a fast growing presidential power in this country and many people believe it is unconstitutional,” he said. “Journalists have to call out politicians on these kinds of issues, but journalism has become [accused of being] so partisan now, if you call anyone out you are automatically pushed into the other camp.

“That is redefining media, but we hope to break through that,” Swann said.

It’s a truism that local TV news gives little attention to complicated issues. Set something on fire, and the camera crews flock. So it’s refreshing to see a TV reporter hold politicians’ feet to the fire, explaining how leaders try to skirt accountability while also trying to broaden the news agenda. And it’s refreshing to see that when a reporter does that, people notice. Broadcasters, and other journalists at every level, should take note.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.