Drone Media Debate Picks Up In 2013, But Coverage Remains Tough To Sustain

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided muni
This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. U.S. and Pakistani officials say Pakistan's intelligence chief will head to Washington late this month to resume counterterrorism talks suspended over a deadly border incident last year that killed two dozen Pakistani troops. (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)

NEW YORK -– As President Barack Obama begins his second term next week, the administration's drone war is having a media moment, with an uptick in reported strikes, increased calls for accountability on cable news and op-ed pages, and renewed questions from lawmakers about the program's legal rationale in light of counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan's nomination to the post of CIA director.

The debate over drones, which was largely absent from the 2012 campaign, has picked up again in the new year. On Jan. 2, a federal judge ruled against The New York Times in its suit seeking the legal memorandum justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda-linked cleric. But in her decision, Judge Colleen McMahon expressed frustration with the “thicket of laws and precedents” that allow the executive branch “to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

The following day, Wired senior reporter Spencer Ackerman wrote that Obama’s “New Year’s resolution” appears to be increased drone strikes, following reported strikes aimed at militants in Pakistan and Yemen. The Associated Press reported Friday that there have been seven strikes over a 10-day period, “one of the most intense series of attacks in the past two years," while ProPublica compiled a piece called "Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes."

Several columnists and commentators have raised moral and legal questions over the past week, including Bloomberg View’s Michael Kinsley and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.

On Thursday night’s show, Maddow spent 18 minutes on the topic, calling out the administration’s “wholesale embrace of the secretive, pseudo-legal deniable, Orwellian means of raining death from the sky all over the world, even in places where we're not technically at war and never admitting to it.” During a Sunday discussion, host Chris Hayes expressed frustration in having a debate on drones given "all this secret information we don’t have access to."

Yet despite the focus on drones in the first weeks of 2013, some doubt whether the coverage will last. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Ackerman said the closed-off nature of the CIA and problems gathering information quickly on strikes are reasons it's difficult to sustain coverage. And the media, he said, has "a poor attention span on national security issues.”

The war in Afghanistan has largely fallen off the media radar, despite the fact that 66,000 U.S. troops remain in that nation. So perhaps it's not surprising that a secret program involving unmanned drones, controlled by Americans out of harm's way, doesn't receive significant media coverage in the U.S. on a regular basis. (The situation, of course, is different in Pakistan, where civilian casualties have stoked public anger.)

“Once the idea of an unmanned aircraft was kind of shocking and weird,” The New York Times' Scott Shane told The Huffington Post. “Now we’re used to it.”

“It’s more the unusual or extraordinary cases that get attention now,” said Shane, a top national security reporter who was also a plaintiff in the Times' FOIA suit. “I think we ought to keep covering it. I guess the trick is to find new angles, important angles to cover, rather than just, ‘A hellfire missile was fired by a drone in such and such village in Pakistan.’ That’s important and we’ll have a full brief about that. But it’s a new kind of warfare. We’re setting an example for other countries, setting precedent legal and otherwise.”

Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Studies Program at the left-leaning New America Foundation, pointed out that the use of drones -- while accelerated greatly under Obama -- began in Pakistan in 2004, under President George W. Bush. “By definition, something that’s gone on for nine years is not going to have sustained media coverage,” Bergen told The Huffington Post. “It’s not a one-time event.”

Still, Bergen said that every “drone strike is a public event” and thereby covered in some capacity. The New America Foundation, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Long War Journal all track drone strikes and casualties, both militant and civilian.

Chris Woods, who oversees TBIJ’s drone research, said he and a small team of journalists pull together local reporting on strikes, use sources on the ground and do independent reporting in Pakistan. Woods said the organization's database is ever-changing, with new information regularly being added to reports to provide the most accurate, up-to-the-minute picture. “We never see a strike as being closed,” Woods said. “Information can come weeks later.”

Yet by the time details surrounding strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia become clear, the news cycle may have already moved on. U.S. officials leak successes -- such as the precision killing of a high-profile terrorist -- but have been less forthcoming when it comes to civilian casualties. Indeed, studies have shown that far more civilians have been killed in drone strikes than the government has acknowledged.

While it's been tough to sustain coverage after nearly a decade, the nomination of the oft-dubbed drone architect has the potential to drive the drone debate in the media beyond the latest dispatch from Waziristan or academic study.

Brennan's key role in the drone program, in which he helps facilitate the process by which Obama chooses combatants to target, along with public comments he has made, will surely come up again before his confirmation hearings.

Last week, Woods scrutinized Brennan's 2011 claim that there had not been a "single collateral death" in U.S. drone strikes the previous year -- a statement he'd later walk back, saying he simply had “no information” to the contrary.

Woods wrote that a drone strike had killed 42 Pakistanis just months before Brennan made that statement, with dozens believed to have been civilian deaths. TBIJ now estimates that 76 civilians were killed in the year-long period during which Brennan said no collateral damage had occurred.

Brennan also argued in April 2012 that the U.S. government’s use of “lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles” to target al Qaeda complies with the law, whether in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. is officially at war -- or elsewhere. That rationale hasn't satisfied some lawmakers, who have voiced concerns publicly this week over the secrecy of the drone program.

On Monday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) argued in The Washington Post for more congressional oversight and “an independent judicial review of any executive-branch ‘kill list’” -- a detail of the drone program The New York Times revealed in May.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), meanwhile, wrote a letter to Brennan asking several questions about the legal basis for using lethal force against U.S. citizens. Wyden wrote that he believes "every American has a right to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them."

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