Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Greenwald selectively quotes NY Times article on drone policy [UPDATES BELOW]

I spend a lot of time reading Glenn Greenwald, and his work has influenced my thinking on a host of issues. I generally find him to be compelling and well-reasoned. But it's also important to be skeptical of everyone, even those you admire.

To that end, I wanted to highlight something in one of his articles today that I found problematic. In it, Greenwald provided commentary on a very important New York Times report detailing Barack Obama's approach to counter-terrorism. Part of that article examined the ways in which Obama has approached the issue of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. Greenwald summed up the relevant portion of the Times piece in the following way:
The article explains that Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on avoiding civilian deaths “did not significantly change” the drone program, because Obama himself simply expanded the definition of a “militant” to ensure that it includes virtually everyone killed by his drone strikes.
But here's the complete portion of the article Greenwald was referencing (emphasis mine):
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.
In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.  
The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
I think this is a case of selective quotation on Mr. Greenwald's part. The point he's making is entirely valid - there is an accounting practice taking place regarding civilian casualties which President Obama has accepted and that (as the article makes clear) is in need of much greater scrutiny.

But Greenwald chose to omit the statement from Michael Hayden in which the former C.I.A. director expressed concern for civilian life. In doing so, he made the C.I.A. seem entirely unconcerned with civilian deaths. I think it was a mistake to do so, and feel that he could have still made his point without this omission. A depiction of officials wrestling with competing, and perhaps contradictory, principles and priorities is a central theme in the Times piece, and I think those commenting on it should acknowledge this reality.

I should note that if I had to guess as to Mr. Greenwald's response to this criticism, he would say that Hayden's statement is irrelevant when contrasted with the reality of the accounting system employed (i.e., an agency truly concerned with avoiding civilian death wouldn't use that system). Again, I don't disagree with the legitimacy of the broader questions Mr. Greenwald is raising. But fully reflecting the values and perspectives of those forming U.S. defense policy - even professed values and perspectives - is important, and I think journalists should make a point of doing so.


Mr. Greenwald published a second article today analyzing the Times piece in greater detail. In it, he quoted from the Times as follows:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.  . . . David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.
I think this is also an incorrect representation of the article. The ellipses Mr. Greenwald employed in this quote links two parts of the article that are 32 paragraphs apart. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, the "Terror Tuesday" meeting is not the same gathering as that involving "100 members of the government's sprawling national security apparatus..." I could be wrong about this, but nothing in my reading of the article suggests that they are the same event.  

Both parts of the article linked by Mr. Greenwald above are deeply important and revealing. But again, I think Mr. Greenwald is misrepresenting the information presented by the Times. The article contextualizes David Axelrod's participation in the "Terror Tuesday" meetings by noting that he began attending them following the failed Abdulmutallab plot. Here's the relevant section of the article (emphasis mine):

The attempted bombing of an airliner a few months later, on Dec. 25, stiffened the president’s resolve, aides say. It was the culmination of a series of plots, including the killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex. by an Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.
Mr. Obama is a good poker player, but he has a tell when he is angry. His questions become rapid-fire, said his attorney general, Mr. Holder. “He’ll inject the phrase, ‘I just want to make sure you understand that.’ “ And it was clear to everyone, Mr. Holder said, that he was simmering about how a 23-year-old bomber had penetrated billions of dollars worth of American security measures.
When a few officials tentatively offered a defense, noting that the attack had failed because the terrorists were forced to rely on a novice bomber and an untested formula because of stepped-up airport security, Mr. Obama cut them short. 
“Well, he could have gotten it right and we’d all be sitting here with an airplane that blew up and killed over a hundred people,” he said, according to a participant. He asked them to use the close call to imagine in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated. In characteristic fashion, he went around the room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to be done about it. 
“After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Even John Brennan, someone who was already a hardened veteran of counterterrorism, tightened the straps on his rucksack after that.” 
David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.
My interpretation of this is that Mr. Axelrod's presence was meant to further demonstrate how seriously the administration considered the failed plot to be. But Mr. Greenwald portrays it as proof of politics overwhelming intelligence gathering. His conclusion is as follows:
In other words, the person in charge of Obama’s political fortunes attends the meetings where the Leader decrees who lives and dies. Just think about how warped that is, or what progressives would be saying if Karl Rove did that with George Bush.
I am not attempting to claim that partisan political considerations and national security aren't linked. They obviously are. But the specific linkage in question just isn't right in the way Mr. Greenwald intends it to be if, in fact, the Terror Tuesday meetings are different from the 100-person conference calls. Is Mr. Axelrod on those calls as well? It's unclear from the Times article, as far as I can see. In fact, the Times portrays those calls (admittedly, based on statements from an anonymous administration official) as "contentious" affairs in which "it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat." That's not the same thing as the politicized process Mr. Greenwald is implying. 

To be clear: as was the case with my comments on Mr. Greenwald's first piece of the day, I think this second one makes many worthwhile and important points. In fact, one of his central aims is to highlight the fact that an extrajudicial group of unelected officials is making life-or-death decisions in a manner which has been largely hidden from the public. This is a very important issue to highlight, and deserves greater focus in the months ahead. 

But if the public is to evaluate the nature of such meetings, we need to be as clear as possible about what we do and don't know about their workings. I think the usage of selective quotation by Mr. Greenwald above isn't in keeping with that principle, and has the potential to confuse the issue rather than clarify it. 


I emailed the article's two authors, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, asking specifically if the "Terror Tuesday" meetings are the same as the 100-person conference calls. Both wrote me back and confirmed that these are different meetings. Here are their emails:

From Scott Shane:

No, the Tuesday terrorism meetings are in the Situation Room of White House and involve a couple dozen officials. The "nominations" meetings are by videoconference and involve 100 or more people from many agencies (and not the president).
From Jo Becker:
No they are not--good catch.
I've reached out to Mr. Greenwald for his thoughts on this, and I'll post any response I receive.


Mr. Greenwald emailed me back. He accepted the second critique on factual grounds and noted the correction at the end of his post, but also defended the idea that Mr. Axelrod's presence politicizes the process (the correction "doesn’t change the point at all," he wrote on his Salon site). He also disagreed with my first critique. Here is his email to me:

John - Thanks for this. Your correction on the meeting Axelrod attends is valid, and I'm adding an update to say so.

The statement by Michael Hayden that the CIA cares for civilian casualities is totally pro forma and changes nothing. Of course the former CIA Director will say this - do you expect him to say that the CIA doesn't care? The record of civilian deaths speaks for itself. The key is that Obama changed the definition of "militant" - if they were so careful about civilian deaths, he wouldn't have needed to.


I emailed Shane and Becker again to ask them this follow-up question:

Jo and Shane, a second question:
The point here is that Mr. Greenwald is implying that Axelrod's presence at the Terror Tuesday meeting politicizes the process. He writes, "In other words, the person in charge of Obama’s political fortunes attends the meetings where the Leader decrees who lives and dies."

Based on your reporting, do you think this is a legitimate critique?

Shane wrote back the following:
John, Not really our job to opine on what's a legitimate critique. I think the point of mentioning Axelrod at the meetings was just to suggest how the Christmas close call galvanized the entire White House, not just the usual security officials.
I don't want to speculate on this too much. I think it's possible to interpret what Mr. Shane wrote to mean that no, he didn't intend his article to suggest that Mr. Axelrod's presence at the meetings politicizes them. But on the other hand, he isn't offering an explicit rebuttal of Mr. Greenwald's point - one that is definitely worthy of further consideration.


I just wanted to offer a few closing thoughts. Though I highlighted what I felt were his misquotations of the Times piece, Mr. Greenwald's articles - and his email to me - raised the right issues. We can disagree on interpretations, but what matters is that we have these discussions. The question of how the White House and the C.I.A. accounts for civilians killed by drone strikes should be examined further. The question of how heavily partisan considerations weigh on national security matters should be examined further. And these are but a few of the issues raised by the Times piece, an article that provided numerous insights into a process that has remained hidden - an issue in and of itself. An examination of these and many other related questions pertaining to foreign policy and executive power should be a part of this presidential election. Those who push that conversation forward are doing the country a great service.


I recently read this article from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which contains the following correction regarding the C.I.A.'s accounting system for civilian deaths:

An earlier version of this report attributed the redefining of ‘civilian’ to the Obama administration. The Bureau now understands that it instead embraced a pre-existing policy introduced under George W Bush. We apologise for the error.
This would seem to contradict Mr. Greenwald's assertion that "Obama changed the definition of 'militant.'" But again, his likely response - and a reasonable one, I think - would likely be that this is irrelevant. What matters is the fact that the Obama administration has embraced the accounting method and applied its own aggressive and expansive drone program.

1 comment:

  1. Good critique, but I don't see how Shane's opinion on Axelrod's presence matters much. We can all draw our own conclusions from his mere presence at such meetings.

    On Hayden, his pledge to avoid civilian casualties strikes me as self-serving and not particularly significant. I'd be more interested in examples, such as times where they elected not to strike because of this consideration.

    Thanks again.