Justifying Targeted Assassinations: the BBC on the Effectiveness of Drone Strikes

The Editors, 7 June 2012

Categories: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War | BBC News |

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In support of the ongoing policy of US drone strikes in Pakistan, US defence secretary Leon Panetta stated that "This [policy] is about our sovereignty as well". His comment came in response to claims by Pakistan that their sovereignty is at risk as a result of the drone attacks. Despite the wild suggestion that the sovereignty of the world's military superpower could be at risk from this tribal region of northern Pakistan, the BBC chose to highlight Panetta's claim, adding to the report the sub-headline (appearing midway through) '"Our Sovereignty"'.

The article, appearing on 6 June, following two weeks of heavy drone strikes on Pakistan, ran with the headline 'Pentagon chief Panetta defends Pakistan drone strikes'. It would be hard to imagine a similar headline from the BBC if another world power such as Russia or China were to undertake a policy of assassination in the territory of another country – particularly if the orders came from the top, from the President’s own ‘kill list’, as is the case with the drone strikes on Pakistan.

The BBC presents the arguments thus: ‘Pakistan says the drone attacks fuel anti-US sentiment and claim civilian casualties along with militants. The US insists the strikes are effective’. The report itself reads almost as a press-release for the Department of Defense, the ‘resentment’ of Pakistani society allowed only the briefest of acknowledgements.

Throughout BBC reporting on the US policy of drone warfare, the ‘effectiveness’ of the attacks is a primary consideration. Where arguments against the strikes are noted (acknowledging that the policy ‘is highly controversial’) the BBC presents as counter-argument the priority of those advocates of drone strikes; the capability for the US to ‘eliminate its enemies’, as Frank Gardner put it.

The emphasis on effectiveness as the deciding factor of the legitimacy of the US’s policy of extra-judicial assassination can be seen in the headline for a report of 30 May by the BBC’s North America editor, Mark Mardell: ‘Is Obama's drone doctrine counter-productive?’ This mode of reasoning is all too familiar. The media consistently debates the merits of wars on the basis of whether or not they can be ‘won’. If not, we call them ‘mistakes’. If they are successful, we speak of ‘vindication’ for those who wage war (‘if it is confirmed that Abu Yahya al-Libi has been killed, Washington may feel vindicated’ the BBC's Aleem Maqbool commented). Considerations of human rights and international law are secondary.

Commenting on the New York Times report that revealed that ‘Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical’, Mardell surmises that the report ‘confirms that the care taken by the president is significant’. In the NYT report, this confirmation is provided by Obama’s aides: ‘Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations … he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions’. Considering the nature of such a ‘controversial’ policy, one can be assured that the Obama administration would rather the press focus on the ‘care taken’ in selecting the targets for assassination over those civilians who have been murdered in the pursuit of the policy. Mardell himself ‘cannot believe that as many officials spoke as freely as they apparently did without being given the presidential green light’, in what was no doubt an exercise in handling public perception of the drones policy. (Its effect can be seen in a reader comment on the NYT report, left by Brad from Arizona, which, parroting the language of the White House aides, reads: ‘President Obama by directly taking responsibility for these decisions is acting as a leader of the entire nation’.) And yet he writes, in the wake of eight drone strikes within two weeks, that ‘[Obama] believes that they [drone strikes] kill America's enemies with minimum risk to the innocent’.

Again, it would be unheard of, in the case of another world power, for revelations of top-down orders for killing to be reported as confirmation that ‘the care taken’ by the leader is ‘significant’.

‘Some are appalled’, Mardell points out in a one-sentence paragraph, anticipating perhaps that this may shock the reader. This seemingly natural human reaction is elevated to news-worthy status considering the pragmatic justifications for these targeted killings offered by the media. ‘Plenty of blogs’ tell us that drone attacks are murder, while ‘others argue’ that they ‘are illegal under international law’, Mardell tells us. He doesn’t point out that those ‘others’ who argue the illegality of the attacks are routinely the Pakistan foreign ministry; that is, the country whose people and territory are on the receiving end of Obama’s ‘responsible’ assassinations. But this is a secondary consideration, as Mardell concludes that the attacks ‘have too many attractions'.

Last year (April 2011) on Radio 4’s Today programme, during which John Humphrys remarked that drones could be ‘highly effective’ in the campaign of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya, Aleem Maqbool remarked that the ‘biggest problem’ with such attacks is that the Taliban ‘use these drone attacks as something of a recruiting tool’. Mark Mardell also writes that Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University ‘says drones strikes have killed women and children and al-Qaeda are adept at using this to recruit people for revenge’.

The murder of civilians does not merit discussion for its own sake, discussed only in the context of potential repercussions in support for al-Qaeda. On 24 May, when a mosque in Northern Waziristan was hit during drone strikes, killing civilian worshippers, the BBC commented merely that: ‘A nearby mosque was also damaged, reports say’. In his comment on the NYT report, Mark Mardell declined to impart another of its revelations. In a move intended to quell public dissent over civilian deaths, the Obama administration simply redefined the term ‘combatant’ to refer to ‘all military-age males’ in US-defined strike zones, a method described by a former senior intelligence official as ‘“guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties’. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 2004 and 2012 CIA drone strikes have reportedly killed between 482 and 832 civilians, including 175 children. (In February 2012, the Bureau reported that under the Obama administration alone, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children’.)

The cool pragmatism with which the BBC views the effects of drone warfare reduces analysis to debating the extent to which the objectives of the US have been met. This is premised with the acceptance that the end justifies the means. Civilian casualties it seems will remain of secondary consideration to the BBC as Obama advances through his kill list.

For more analysis of the reporting of US drone strikes, see our previous article The Unworthy Victims of US Drones Attacks.

Categories in which this article appears: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War | BBC News |

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