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As Brennan 'Escapes,' Criticism of Media 'Self-Censorship' on Drone Program Grows | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

As Brennan 'Escapes,' Criticism of Media 'Self-Censorship' on Drone Program Grows


A drone flies above Afghanistan in 2010. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File.)

So John Brennan has testified at his confirmation hearings, the Senators had their crack at him, apparently to little avail, many in the media now assess. Various outlets are drawing up questions he dodged (he wouldn’t even say if waterboarding was torture) or decrying the usual lack of guts or focus on the part of most committee members. Senator Dianne Feinstein was so bent on helping the president get Brennan through the gate, she claimed that civilian casualties from drone strikes had remained in the “single digits” the past few years.

At least the five separate protests in the hearing room, while predictable, drew wide attention. On the other hand, a Republican senator got away with making a joke about waterboarding.

One thing I did appreciate: with Brennan admitting that he once thought torture helped in getting bin Laden and in some other cases, but now, after reading the full (classified) report, he has grave doubts about that, this ought to knock Zero Dark Thirty’s chances of winning an Oscar out the window. One wonders if it was Brennan himself who “spun” Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. Perhaps they should now admit they, too, may have gotten it wrong.

John Cassidy at The New Yorker is among those claiming that Brennan, the “drone man,” escaped from the hearings “unscathed.”

Although a good number of Senators seemed exercised about the White House’s tardiness in turning over its legal rationale for assassinating American citizens, few, if any, of them appeared to have any more fundamental qualms about the drone program. Brennan didn’t express any, either. “The people who were standing up here have a misleading view of what it is we do,” he said, referring to the protesters. They “don’t understand the agonies we go through to avoid collateral damage.” Under questioning from Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, the most Brennan was willing to concede was that, on occasions when American drones did kill the wrong person, or people, the United States should fess up. “We need to acknowledge it to our foreign partners,” he said. “We need to acknowledge it publicly.”

That’s all right, then. With all parties agreed on the necessity of taking out potentially dangerous Islamists, even if that might involve the odd fatal error, the toughest questions revolved about Brennan’s role, or lack thereof, in the CIA’s torture program following 9/11, when he was a top official at the agency.

Even there, the few tough questions inflicted little pain, so to speak.

While the tough questioning of Brennan expired, criticism of the media for its self-censorship on key elements (and effects) of the drone program, mainly from the left, gained ground.

As I noted yesterday, it was not until this week that leading outlets, such as The New York Times and Washington Post, finally disclosed the existence of a US drone base in Saudi Arabia. They admitted they had known about it long ago but kept it under wraps. This was particularly odd, since this fact had been reported by some media abroad, although without the alleged credibility of their heavyweight counterparts in the US.

It even had gained mention in the US, as Adrian Chen at Gawker pointed out, leading to a damning charge: ‘[I]t turns out that base had already been reported months earlier—including by Fox News. In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren’t protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story.”

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Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the Times, quickly hailed the paper’s decision to finally come clean. There’s an interesting back story here. She had slammed the Times last fall for keeping so much secret on the drone program—well beyond the Saudi base issue—and gained the praise of Glenn Greenwald and others. This week, Greenwald, now at The Guardian, criticized her for going a little too soft on the Times for its belated limited hang-out—especially considering the paper’s many other sins of omission (caused by holding back natonal security information in recent years, which he detailed). Sullivan promised a reply to his response in her Sunday column, so stay tuned for that.

Here’s The Washington Post’s explanation for its holding back:

“The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the specific location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an Al Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

“The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.”

The Associated Press explained its self-censorship this way: “US officials contended that revealing the location would make the base a target of extremists, endangering people directly, and would badly endanger counterterror efforts.”

And as for The New York Times, here’s an excerpt from Margaret Sullivan’s account of her chat with managing editor Dean Baquet:

The government’s rationale for asking that the location be withheld was this: Revealing it might jeopardize the existence of the base and harm counterterrorism efforts. “The Saudis might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” Baquet said.

Mr. Baquet added, “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” The need to tell this particular story accurately trumped the government’s concerns.

Mr. Baquet said he had a conversation with a CIA official about a month ago and, at that time, agreed to continue withholding the location, as it had done for many months.

Chen’s response: “The fact that the Times made no mention of a security concern in their rationale makes the security argument seem suspect. In cooperating with the blackout, news organizations weren’t protecting a state secret: They were making the CIA’s life easier by suppressing a story that was already out there. One which may have embarrassed their Saudi hosts, whose citizens might rightly be concerned that their soil was the launching pad for attacks in Yemen…”

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