In the original version of the story, Matarrese had written the following (emphasis mine):
Brennan’s speech came just before the first anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and Brennan’s appearance was part of what he called a greater push by the administration to be more transparent about counter-terrorism strategy. Tom Donnelly, a national security and defense researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he agrees with the administration’s reasoning behind the legality of drone strikes. People like Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born terrorist killed in a drone strike last year are enemy combatants, he said, and are “subject to the law of war, not the law of peace.”What I found noteworthy was that Matarrese referred to al-Awlaki as "an American-born terrorist," which is (in various ways) how he is described by Obama administration officials. But this issue - the exact nature of al-Awlaki's activities and the question of what proof has been offered by the government concerning those activities - is at the heart of the debate surrounding his killing. I wanted to ask Matarrese about his word choice, and so I sent him a group of messages on Twitter (available here). Collectively, they read as follows:
Andy, enjoyed your report on Brennan's speech, but you refer to al-Awlaki as "an American-born terrorist." That's the problem for critics of this polcy [sic]: al-Awlaki was never tried, and the evidence against him wasn't public. Instead, he was added to a kill list in secret (Reuters report: http://reut.rs/odCH8s). So that begs the question: can the President, in theory, add anyone to a kill list in secret? Can he declare anyone to be a terrorist, without proving it? Based on this, do you think it was right to refer to al-Awlaki as a "terrorist" in your piece? To be clear: what I mean is, him being a terrorist is the gov's accusation. But w/out public evidence, should it be repeated?
Matarrese tweeted back: "Well, actually, the version I meant to put up said 'militant' instead. Thanks for catching that." By this, he was explaining that the original version of his article - the one I had read before contacting him, and which had been mistakenly posted on the Medill DC website - referred to al-Awlaki as a "terrorist." Medill students working out of DC pitch their articles to media partners, one of which is UPI. This article was, in fact, picked up by UPI, which ran it. But before doing so, a UPI editor (Matarrese wasn't sure who it had been assigned to) changed "terrorist" to "militant," a change Matarrese approved of. I asked another series of questions over Twitter:
Andy, thanks for the clarification. But even so, I would still ask the same question. That Reuters article states as follows: "The Obama administration has not made public an accounting of the classified evidence that al-Awlaki was operationally involved in planning terrorist attacks." So even him being a "militant" is an unproven accusation, isn't it? If you think I'm misinterpreting this, please let me know. I'm trying to understand this story better. What I'm getting at is the issue of whether the govt must offer public proof against its targets. Brennan didn't seem to address that, and in that context, stating that al-Awlaki was a "militant" or "terrorist" could be an issue. Thoughts?Matarrese answered: "It is disturbing that the gov't hasn't been more transparent about the process as far as drones...as far as the 'militant' thing goes, barring everything I've ever heard about him is wrong, it seemed fair to me..."
I then emailed him (emphasis mine):
I'm not trying to make you feel targeted here. We're both students of journalism, and I don't claim to have any special understanding of, or information regarding, this complicated issue.
...As you well know, the critics of the al-Awlaki killing (Glenn Greenwald, for example - http://bit.ly/p9SZ2W) don't spend much time defending him or his actions. I don't think anyone would be particularly surprised if he was as dangerous (i.e., operationally involved in terrorist plots) as the government says he was. Instead, what they focus on is the legal precedent the killing sets. The point is that this was a US citizen who was accused of terrorist activity and then killed. He wasn't tried in court, the evidence of his terrorist activity wasn't public, and we now know that decisions about who is placed on the kill list are being made in secret.
I know you read the ACLU's statements on Brennan's speech, but here's the most relevant portion, in my mind (link - http://bit.ly/InYDBX):
"Even if there were no disagreement about the relevant legal standards, and even if the administration adopted a policy of complete transparency with respect to those legal standards, it would still be impossible to evaluate the lawfulness of the administration's conduct without access to the factual basis for that conduct. Legal standards are meaningless unless they are applied appropriately to the facts. It's irrelevant that we have a narrowly drawn law against (say) treason if that law is applied to people who have done nothing more than (say) make offensive and incendiary speeches. To know whether the government's conduct is lawful, we need to know the legal standards the government has adopted, but we also need to know something about the factual contexts in which the government believes those standards have been satisfied. This is why we've asked the administration to disclose the evidence it relied on when it authorized the extrajudicial killing of three Americans in Yemen last fall. Some commentators have argued, circularly, that this kind of evidence can't be disclosed because it's classified. It's worth remembering that this kind of evidence is precisely what the administration would have had to disclose had it charged these Americans with crimes, or had it detained them as combatants rather than killed them."
In this context, I think journalists have to make a choice about the language that they use. In essence, what I'm asking is if you think you should have written that al-Awlaki was an "alleged militant" or an "alleged terrorist." I think this is important because if the press reports that someone is, indeed, a terrorist, then the government's decision to kill that person seems justified and reasonable. Again, this is less about the case of al-Awlaki specifically and more about the broader issue of what this decision portends for executive power in the future...Journalists and the language they use will have a big impact on how that debate is related to the public - indeed, a big impact on whether the public even thinks that this is an issue worth debating...He replied (emphasis mine):
I don't feel targeted at all, but thank you for your concern...As far as calling him a militant, I'm pretty OK with that. Advocating jihad and inciting to violence feels like militancy to me. Walks like a duck, talks like a duck, right? "Terrorist," not so sure. UPI, the client for whom I wrote the story, made that edit, and I'm glad, in retrospect. Really, now that I think about it, "alleged terrorist" might be more accurate, if in fact he was plotting and colluding to do actual violence on others, as per the administration's line. But, as you pointed out, we just don't know, do we? Knowing what I do know, however, militant works fine for me...I followed up (emphasis mine):
Andy, thanks so much for your thoughts on this. Here are my follow-up questions:
"As far as calling him a militant, I'm pretty OK with that..."
1) If "we just don't know, do we?" then could you share the evidence you have seen (I'm assuming it's publicly available) that leads you to believe al-Awlaki was indeed a militant or terrorist? (You wrote that, "Knowing what I do know, however, militant works fine for me.")
2) Could you explain why you were "glad" that the UPI editor changed "militant" to "terrorist"? [EDITORIAL NOTE: When I sent the email, I was confused. I meant to write that "terrorist" had been changed to "militant," not the other way around. This error didn't affect Matarrese's response.]...Matarrese responded (emphasis mine):
OK. You may have discovered for me a "chicken-and-the-egg" situation. What I mean by what I've heard is everything I know from following the news. I can't point you to any specific stories, because I don't really keep track. Moreover, national security isn't exactly my reporting expertise; I'm new to this beat, so I'm sure there is a ton of information out there I have yet to absorb...
...I'm glad they changed it to militant because terrorist has the connotation of being in the mix with the guns and the bombs and what not. It's not entirely clear he was. Militant I like because I think a guy can collude and cooperate in multiple ways. Militant can range from fellow traveler to actual central player. I don't have my dictionary out, but it feels satisfactory to me.
I don't know as much as I'd like about Eric Holder and company's justification for targeted killing, a la al-Awlaki. I think it gets mired up in how a country can treat enemy combatants, where the line is between being a sympathizer and fully defecting, and how a nation can treat a citizen who switches sides, for lack of a better term. Again, I don't really know. But the government unilaterally killing citizens? Definitely problematic. Not presenting evidence said citizen essentially forfeited his rights as such, excusing his/her killing as an enemy combatant? Also problematic. At the risk of bruising my objectivity, it's creepy to say the least.I felt that Matarrese had been entirely candid in his remarks and explanations. I also didn't want to hound him unnecessarily, considering that I saw us both as being in the same boat - students trying to learn how to report stories like this one. At this point, I wanted to see how the professionals who had worked on the story would react to these same questions. I reached out to both UPI's John Hendel, an Executive Editor there who receives pitches from Medill students, and the Medill professor who had worked with Matarrese on the piece, Ellen Shearer. My email to both was essentially the same (emphasis mine):
I've been keeping up with stories on MedillDC.net, and a line in Andy Matarrese's article on John Brennan's drone policy speech (http://medilldc.net/2012/05/"People like Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant killed in a drone strike last year
brennan/) caught my eye. Here it is:
are enemy combatants, he said, and are 'subject to the law of war, not the law of peace.'"
...I would like to know if you stand by the decision to refer to al-Awlaki in Andy's article as a "terrorist" or "militant" as opposed to referring to him as an "alleged militant" or an "alleged terrorist." In our email exchange (which I would be happy to share), Andy told me that he felt comfortable referring to al-Awlaki as a "militant" because of what he's read about him. However, he noted that he "can't point...to any specific stories" or evidence that definitively prove that al-Awlaki was, indeed, working with a terrorist group...Hendel didn't respond to the message, but Ms. Shearer did, and we spoke by phone (a transcript of the relevant portions of the conversation can be found at the end of this post).
Ms. Shearer thought that the question of what language should be used to label al-Awlaki was a worthwhile one: "These are the kinds of discussions that one should always have in terms of, is a story evolving, are we characterizing somebody the way other people are without thinking it through for ourselves. I mean, I think it's always worth having those discussions."
She explained that she didn't remember discussing usage of the word "terrorist" during conversations with Matarrese, but defended the article's use of the term "militant." I asked her why. "Well, if you look at his associations, I think that that's fair. We could have said 'radical cleric,' that's another term, but I feel that militant is fair."
I asked if there was specific information she had seen about al-Awlaki that had led her to that assessment. She didn't mention specific articles. Instead, she claimed that he had been referred to as a "terrorist" by USA Today (here's an example of that), and added that al-Awlaki had admitted to being a member of Al Qaeda, though she didn't recall where she had seen that specific claim reported. "I did not look for evidence [of al-Awlaki's activities] in advance [of the story going to print]," she explained, "It's a name that's been in the news, and I follow the news, and so kind of between our National Security Zone blog and other, and the major media, that was really kind of the basis for my judgment."
[T]he question of the legality of the killing was not a part of Matarrese's article. However, it forms the umbrella under which reporters are operating. In short, we have a US citizen who was accused of terrorism and then killed following that accusation, all without a trial. The government claims its actions were necessary, right, and Constitutional...But in this broader context, should journalists refuse to refer to a US citizen using the terminology of the government absent evidence presented in court? I ask because in my opinion, the more journalists refer to an individual as a "terrorist" or "militant," the more likely it is that the public will simply assume that the individual in question was duly convicted of demonstrable crimes. I feel like journalists are in a tough situation here, and I'm not saying that I know the answer, but I'm looking for the principles you think should be employed.A few days later, I attempted to further clarify my questions in a second email:
Here's where I'm coming from: it seems like a dangerous precedent for journalists to echo the government's description of someone designated for lethal action outside of any court process. This is especially true for US journalists writing about a US citizen. I feel as though we should set a high bar for evidence in such a case, and until overwhelming evidence is presented, the individual should be referred to, at the very least, as an "alleged" militant, terrorist, etc.
I was asking you to pass along the most compelling evidence you've seen because I wanted to know what you considered to be compelling enough for the label of "militant" to be applied to al-Awlaki. I think my point is clear: I'm asking if you believe you and Mr. Matarrese did your due diligence before sending this article to print.When Ms. Shearer wrote me back, she told me that she was too busy with other projects to offer additional thoughts, adding, "I appreciate your interest in thinking through how best to be fair in what we do as journalists." (For the record, it was the end of the quarter, and I have no doubt that she was, in fact, very busy. I don't think she was trying to be evasive.)
Let me begin by saying that I do not intend for this to be an attack on the integrity of either Andy Matarrese or Ms. Shearer. They were both forthright and friendly, and I have no reason to doubt that they approached the article in question with a desire to make it as accurate as possible.
That said, I'm going to respectfully suggest that they made a mistake, one which highlights one of the challenges confronting journalists reporting on government activity - especially activity which the government isn't eager to share information about.
To explain where I'm coming from: much of my understanding of this case has been informed by critics of the administration's actions, specifically Glenn Greenwald, who has been cited multiple times above and who writes for Salon.com. Greenwald has been consistently and unequivocally critical of the killing (examples of that are here, here, and here). He portrays it as an unconstitutional violation of al-Awlaki's 1st and 5th amendment rights which has set a dangerous precedent that could be exploited by the current, and future, administrations. While I've also read other points of view, specifically work from those who defend the al-Awlaki's killing (for example, Josh Marshall and Roger Simon), I generally feel that the information Greenwald provides makes a compelling case.
That said, this post is not an attempt to advocate for his legal analysis - I don't have enough knowledge of the issues involved to do that confidently. I seems to me that the administration can indeed make a case for what it did, and that its central argument - that there are individuals whose allegiance to terrorist organizations make them legitimate targets in ways that preclude their Constitutional rights - is logical, at least in theory.
However, in this instance, I don't believe the administration has been particularly forthcoming about the legal or evidential basis behind what it did. For that reason, I think that barring the release of further evidence, journalists writing about al-Awlaki should avoid adopting officially sanctioned language to describe him.
First, consider what we definitely know about Anwar al-Awlaki. We know that he released videos online which (among other things) advocated or justified violence against Americans. He was quoted in Inspire, Al Qaeda's magazine, and was killed alongside Samir Khan, the magazine's editor. We know by his own admission that he was in contact with Nidal Hasan, who carried out the shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, though he denied encouraging Hasan to commit his crimes. It has also been alleged that he was in touch with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber."
It should be noted here that speech advocating violence against the United States is not automatically a crime. As Greenwald has explained, in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, the Supreme Court declared such speech to be protected under the 1st Amendment. The only exception, as far as language is concerned, is when, in the words of the Court, "such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing lawless action..." This would not apply to Awlaki's general advocacy of violence against the United States and its citizens.
However, the Obama administration didn't base its rationale for the killing on al-Awlaki's words alone. Instead, it has stated publicly that he was actively involved in terrorist plots, making him a direct combatant against the U.S. In September of 2011, shortly after al-Awlaki was killed, White House Spokesman Jay Carney referred to him this way:
"I think it has been well established, and it has certainly been the position of this administration and the previous administration that he is a leader in -- was a leader in AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]; that AQAP was a definite threat, was operational, planned and carried out terrorist attacks..."Similarly, Attorney General Eric Holder called him "a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" during his address at Northwestern this past March. And upon al-Awlaki's death, Obama himself described him as "the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" and an individual who "took the lead in planning and directing the efforts to murder innocent Americans."
However, as mentioned above, al-Awlaki was never tried in court. Furthermore, the specific evidence against him - evidence which would, in theory, demonstrate his operational ties to terrorist plots - has never been released by the administration. This becomes apparent when we consider available press reports on the subject. A great deal of the alleged evidence presented by the media about al-Awlaki's activities consists of statements taken from government officials. For example, this CBS News article from March 18, 2011 (also linked to above) asserted that:
"Al-Awalki appears to be in a leadership role when it comes to directing terrorist operations and selecting targets for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a law enforcement source told CBS News investigative producer Pat Milton."But that law enforcement source isn't identified. That same article reports the allegation - based on the same unnamed source - that Awlaki helped direct Abdulmutallab's bombing attempt, as well as offering a supporting quote from an anonymous "senior U.S. intelligence official" (emphasis mine):
"The source said Abdulmutallab told investigators he was guided by al-Awalki to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, unlike the failed British bomber plot in 2006 when the bombers were instructed to detonate bombs on airliners over the ocean on the way to the U.S. so that there would be no evidence left behind. Al-Awlaki himself said in a recent interview that he and Abdulmutallab had kept in contact. A senior U.S. intelligence official said al-Awlaki represented the biggest name on the list of people Abdulmutallab might have information against. Both spoke on condition anonymity to discuss the sensitive ongoing investigation.Here's another article on that same topic, this one published in the Huffington Post earlier this year. Note the sourcing (emphasis mine):
"The United States on Friday submitted a memorandum to a Michigan federal judge revealing that terrorist leader Anwar al Awlaki had more direct involvement that previously known in the so-called underwear bomber's preparations to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009...A White House official, speaking on background, said the details disclosed in the memo, which were gained from Abdulmutallab through debriefing statements made to FBI agents in April 2010, help show that military detentions are unnecessary to combat terrorism."As mentioned earlier, al-Awlaki is also routinely attached to the shootings Nidal Hasan carried out at Fort Hood. But did he advocate violence? An ABC piece from 2009 suggested as much, but in doing so referenced an unnamed "American official with top secret access" to the emails sent between al-Awlaki and Hasan.
Or take this New York Times article from April of 2010 (emphasis mine):
“The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,” said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. “He’s gotten involved in plots.”
And in 2011, ABC News again cited unnamed "US officials" and a single "terror expert" (who was named) in an article which alleged that al-Awlaki had an operational role in numerous plots, "whether by simply pushing the attackers over the violent edge or by personally guiding them through operations."
Second, we have numerous media reports over a period of several years which portray al-Awlaki as an organizational leader of Al Qaeda and a planner of terrorist acts. But these reports routinely base their claims on quotes from government officials who refused to speak on the record, let alone reveal the evidence supposedly in their possession.
Indeed, the administration has not been eager to release hard evidence of al-Awlaki's activities. For example, when a suit was filed on behalf of al-Awlaki's family asking for him to be removed from a list of individuals targeted for lethal military action, the government argued that the suit should be dismissed, claiming that allowing it to go forward would reveal "state secrets." In other words, it was arguing that it didn't have to make a public case against him, because doing so would damage national security.
Furthermore, and as referenced above, the ACLU has filed a FOIA request in an attempt to force the administration to release the evidence it claims to have about al-Awalki's activities, arguing that, "To know whether the government's conduct is lawful, we need to know the legal standards the government has adopted, but we also need to know something about the factual contexts in which the government believes those standards have been satisfied." The organization's lawyers are still waiting.
Journalists have also highlighted the lack of publicly available evidence presented by the White House. The September, 2011 press briefing previously mentioned (it took place after al-Awlaki had been killed) featured a fascinating exchange between ABC News' Jake Tapper and Jay Carney. Here's an excerpt:
JAKE TAPPER: You said that Awlaki was demonstrably and provably involved in operations. Do you plan on demonstrating --
MR. CARNEY: I should step back. He is clearly -- I mean "provably" may be a legal term. I think it has been well established, and it has certainly been the position of this administration and the previous administration that he is a leader in -- was a leader in AQAP; that AQAP was a definite threat, was operational, planned and carried out terrorist attacks that, fortunately, did not succeed, but were extremely serious -- including the ones specifically that I mentioned, in terms of the would-be Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and the attempt to bomb numerous cargo planes headed for the United States. And he was obviously also an active recruiter of al Qaeda terrorists. So I don't think anybody in the field would dispute any of those assertions.
JT: You don't think anybody else in the government would dispute that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I wouldn’t know of any credible terrorist expert who would dispute the fact that he was a leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and that he was operationally involved in terrorist attacks against American interests and citizens.
JT: Do you plan on bringing before the public any proof of these charges?
MR. CARNEY: Again, the question makes us -- has embedded within it assumptions about the circumstances of his death that I’m just not going to address.
JT: How on earth does it have -- I really don't understand. How does -- he’s dead. You are asserting that he had operational control of the cargo plot and the Abdulmutallab plot. He’s now dead. Can you tell us, or the American people -- or has a judge been shown --
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, Jake, I’m not going to go any further than what I’ve said about the circumstances of his death and --
JT: I don't even understand how they're tied.
MR. CARNEY: -- the case against him, which, again, you’re linking. And I think that --
JT: You said that he was responsible for these things.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, but again --
JT: Is there going to be any evidence presented?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have anything for you on that.
Based on our conversations, I don't believe that either Mr. Matarrese or Ms. Shearer intended to advance such a narrative. However, it is my opinion that they unwittingly accepted what had seemingly become conventional wisdom: that al-Awlaki was an operational member of Al Qaeda. They did so even though they didn't reference specific evidence to that effect. That was their mistake - the acceptance of a dominant story line which, upon closer examination, reveals itself to be questionable. (I would say that UPI's John Hendel made this mistake, too.)
The overarching lesson to be drawn, I think, is the one Ms. Shearer herself offered during our conversation - that "These are the kinds of discussions that one should always have in terms of, is a story evolving, are we characterizing somebody the way other people are without thinking it through for ourselves." In a case like this, where word choices have the potential to clearly impact public understanding of a complex story, it is imperative that journalists have that discussion in a routine and robust manner.
(One final point: my conversations with Mr. Matarrese and Ms. Shearer suggested a semantic disagreement. They both seemed to suggest that the word "militant" could still apply to al-Awlaki even if he was something less than an operational planner - if he was, for example, just a propagandist for Al Qaeda. But here, too, I would offer a challenge. I feel that while this might be technically correct, the prevailing connotation of the word [as well as its primary definition] is that of an individual taking up, or coordinating the taking up, of arms with the explicit intent of directing tangible violence against a target. As such, I don't think the average reader is likely to distinguish between "militant" and "terrorist," and feel that both words should therefore be used with equal caution.)
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TRANSCRIPT: Conversation between John V. Santore (JS) and Ellen Shearer (ES) on May 8, 2012
JS: ...What caught my eye was his reference to Anwar Awlaki as a - in his original version he referred to him as a terrorist.