It is a strange thing to wake up to an email alert from the New York Times. The content need not always and necessarily be devastating, but given that my particular subscription alerts me to each and every mention of the word “drone”, it most often is. To be sure, the content does vary and includes NYT articles on everything from the civilian uses of drones, to ‘dry’ conversations in Washington about the legality of drone strikes or the possibility of South Korea obtaining them (!), but more often than not the articles that I am sent are effectively death deports:
‘Drone Strike Kills 2 in Yemen’ (December 29, 2012); ‘Yemen: American Drone Strike Kills 2’ (December 25, 2012) (in case you were wondering, this is not the same incident as reported in the previous article); ‘U.S. Drone Strike Kills a Commander for Al Qaeda in Pakistan’ (December 10, 2012), and so on and so forth.
There are a few points to make about these e-mail alerts: firstly, they attest to the high-frequency with which the U.S. continues to use drones to kill “terrorist” suspects outside of the formal war zone. Second, the articles which report death(s) (most often the word ‘drone’ is synonymous not with a single death, but with multiple and therefore plural deaths) are worryingly sparse on information, and the interrogation of the ‘facts’ is sometimes zero (e.g. the Yemen strike last Friday). This results in a form of journalism that tells us that something happened – and usually roughly where it happened – but other critical information is missing: are the targeted persons really who the U.S. Government says they are? On what basis and information did the strike take place, and how accurate was this information? Were the second, third and fourth fatalities really also terrorists, or were they merely in the vicinity of one? These are basic contextual questions that would be answered in ‘normal’ journalistic circumstances, but the journalistic code of the NYT drones death report has abandoned them in favour of a skeletal and syndicated roll-call version of reportage. Of course, the NYT is not alone and my point is neither to single it out nor to paint it with a single stroke. Indeed, the reason why I subscribe to their drone reports (rather than many others) is because occasionally the NYT run genuinely insightful reports and comments (the writing of Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Jo Becker are all cases in point). However, I do think it is worth questioning the value of a report which alerts the reader to something so significant (for what could be more significant than the continual and daily loss of life?) while at the same time telling her nothing of significance about the very thing which is most significant. I concede also that we should not blame the messenger alone: the fundamental reason why there is so little information is because of a carefully orchestrated effort by the U.S. to manage and control the flow of available information and images. This being true, I think journalists and especially papers like the NYT still have a responsibility to shed light on why it is that these death reports are so vacuous and we should asking what kind of journalism we want – and what kind of journalism is possible – in the age of the death report.
Yet as I say, the NYT runs informative reports on drone strikes too. This mornings piece by Declan Walsh is no exception. Walsh reveals new evidence which shows that Pakistani militants are torturing, interrogating and killing informants who help the US military and the CIA track down individuals on their hit list. Often these individuals are recruited from poor areas – “largely poor tribesmen — barbers, construction workers, Afghan migrants” – and are paid pocket change by nefarious figures said to be linked to the US government.
Nobody likes a spy or a leaker operating in their own backyard, be it in the tribal belt of Pakistan or a U.S. base near Baghdad (where Bradley Manning is said to have obtained documents later leaked to Wikileaks). But these tribesmen – U.S. “assets” – are brought for as little as $150, and in return they are expected to provide all kind of help to the U.S. in their witch-hunt. Walsh reports:
The jittery accounts of the accused men [on video] reveal dramatic stories of espionage: furtive meetings with handlers; disguising themselves as Taliban fighters, fruit sellers or even heroin addicts; payment of between $150 and $450 per drone strike; and placing American-supplied electronic tracking devices, often wrapped in cigarette foil, near the houses and cars of Qaeda fugitives.
But when and if they are caught by the people on whom they are spying, these civilians wind up tortured and dead. Such treatment, it goes without saying, is inhumane but we should not read the violence as the work of the Barbarian, or if we do, we should remember how our own societies treat our ‘own people’ who collude and work with the enemy. We call them homegrown terrorists or traitors, and we imprison them indefinitely and without trial. Yet while no apology can be made for the treatment of these Pakistani and Afghan informants, I think it is worth remembering how and why these poor tribal men ended up in the hands of torturers in the first place. Praying on vulnerable populations to do the dirty work of the CIA and the US military is hardly an honourable way to fight. It is even less honourable when those who do choose to, or who are coerced into, helping the ‘fight against terrorism’ are provided zero protection. It has been said that drone warfare is war on the cheap in part because it is conducted remotely and ‘from above’, but now reports such as these today confirm that the ‘ground truth’ data collections that are absolute prerequisites for the aerial drone strikes are also done on the cheap. Cheap price, and cheap lives that is: brought and sold in a strange war economy where a bargain for the US is a(nother) death for the Other. Time again, I think, to reassess the notion of what counts as “collateral damage” and perhaps also to think even further about the multiple, incalculable and unforeseeable forms of cascading collateral consequences of the US drone war.
There is much more to be said about the geographies of the informant and her technologies, as there is about the networks of ground and aerial data collection which animate and inform drone warfare, but more on this later. For now, Lets see what tomorrow’s death report brings. Happy New Year (or not).