Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Not listening makes actual reporting pretty impossible

The other day I wrote about the importance of understanding President Obama's goals in foreign policy in order to measure his success. But perhaps I should have taken it one step further. It would be helpful if we started by actually listening to what he says.

In an age where we can re-read speeches or listen to the video-tapped recordings of them, this kind of reporting on the outcome of the President's speech last year on counterterrorism is a perfect example of why our media has lost credibility. The title of the article pretty much tells you all you need to know: One Year After Obama's Big Drone Speech, Many Promises Left Unkept.

First of all, it was not a big drone speech!!!!  It was a speech about the indefinite war we've been waging since 9/11 (of which drones are a part) and a call for the country to contemplate ending that war. If you don't get that, you don't get the speech.

When someone knows how to put together a speech that makes a logical argument (as this President certainly does), you look for the opening statement that summarizes what the whole speech is about. After talking about the attacks on 9/11 and our response to them, the President said this:
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror...But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom. That begins with understanding the current threat that we face.
But here's how the reporters in the article linked above summarized the speech:
One year ago last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a major address on drones, targeted killing and terrorism. The president and administration officials promised that the drone program would operate within limits protecting civilians, control would be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon, and a new era of transparency would begin.
Assuming those are promises the President made in this speech, they conclude:
"I would give the president an 'F' based on his promises a year ago," said Alka Pradhan, the counterterrorism counsel for the human rights group Reprieve U.S.
They pretty much missed the whole point of the speech and then gave him an "F" for not fulfilling the promises they suggest he made. So lets take a look at what they think he promised and compare it to what he actually said. On limiting the drone program in order to protect civilians, he was pretty clear-eyed.
America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.

Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes -- both here at home and abroad -- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties -- not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option.
What I hear is a President grappling with the world as it is - doing everything in his power to minimize civilian casualties but recognizing that his actions risk just that - while doing nothing risks more. I hear no promises; only an explanation of the call that rests on his shoulders.

Nowhere in the speech did the President make a statement about transferring control of drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon. That leak came two months prior to this speech from unnamed senior officials, so I'm not sure what it has to do with an analysis of this speech. Even so, at the time of the leak it was predicted that such a transfer would take a year or more to implement. So perhaps its a bit soon to give it a grade.

I see no great emphasis on transparency in the President's speech. But he did say this:
And for this reason, I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen -- Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.
He also made a couple of suggestions he was open to exploring with Congress.
Going forward, I’ve asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested -- the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch -- avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. But despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these and other options for increased oversight.
But that's it on the topic of transparency. Once again, I fail to hear any promises.

Finally, in an article that purports to hold President Obama accountable for the promises he made in a speech, there is NO mention of the other strategies he discussed.
  1. Effective global partnerships
  2. Diplomatic engagement and assistance
  3. Striking the appropriate balance between security and civil liberties
  4. Refining and ultimately repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force
  5. Closing the Guantanamo Bay prison
But I guess when you've already decided that this was "a big drone speech," all that talk goes in one ear and out the other.

I thought it might be helpful to systematically unpack just one article that missed the mark so badly in order to make a point. The authors obviously had an agenda in mind and then simply used that to measure what they assume the President said. That this kind of thing is what often passes for reporting these days speaks to the willful blindness and/or laziness of much of our media. There are days that it feels like we could spend all of our time simply correcting the record...just to get us into a position to debate it.

1 comment:

  1. If we must strike, I prefer drones. They save American soldiers lives. They are a natural progression of warfare. A weapon that inflicts the most damage, while taking as few friendly and innocent lives as possible. There would be many more dead on both sides, if we sent thousands of soldiers on the ground. Our superior missile capability gives us the same options. It would be nice if we could stop being the worlds policeman, but we have enemies and the moral responsibility to fight for liberty, or at least protect our liberty.