Use of Drones Highlights the Need for Better Journalism

Sam White, Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, members of Congress had a one-of-a-kind opportunity to hear firsthand from victims of U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan. In a briefing organized by Representative Alan Grayson, D-Fl., schoolteacher Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children recounted their well-rehearsed tale of the day when, a year ago, a pilotless plane attacked their village in the country’s North Waziristan region.

Nabila, nine, spoke of working in the fields with her grandmother, Momina Bibi, when the missile exploded, hurling Momina to her death and blocking out the sun with smoke. She ran, scared, an injury on her hand bleeding uncontrollably. Her 13-year-old brother Zubair, nearby, tried to do the same, but shrapnel had badly damaged his leg. When Rehman arrived at the scene shortly thereafter, neighbors would not let him see his mother’s body; the injuries, they told him, were too gruesome. To Rehman’s knowledge, Momina Bibi, a local midwife and a grandmother of nine, was the only fatality.

Also in attendance at Grayson’s briefing was filmmaker Robert Greenwald, whose new documentary, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, features the Rehman family alongside others affected by the United States’ drone program. An array of staffers and other audience members were also present. And five lawmakers.

Five of the House of Representatives’ 535 voting members. Less than one percent.

For those well versed in American government, perhaps this dismal turnout is no surprise. Our elected representatives are busy;

they have committee meetings to attend and policy decisions to make. Briefings like Grayson’s, which was not affiliated with any particular committee, aren’t always easy to fit into hectic schedules. And it’s no secret in Congress that few Americans consider foreign policy a priority.

None of this, however, justifies Momina Bibi’s death. Nor does it justify the United States’ failure to respond to her family members’ pleas for explanation as to why a drone would target a family of schoolteachers, or to offer them compensation for the crippling medical costs resulting from their injuries. And it does not justify silence from Congress as the Obama administration’s controversial drone program continues unabated.

Grayson’s          poorly  attended briefing is, if nothing else, a reflection of the fact that members of Congress don’t think drone strikes matter to Americans. This needs to change.

It is true that not many Americans openly care about drone strikes occurring in faraway corners of the world. In large part, it’s because they don’t hear about them. President Obama’s drone program has been shrouded in secrecy from the outset, and what few words and statistics his administration does release are carefully measured, vague and generally uninformative. And America’s mass media, for the most part, does little better: If Americans hear about drones, it’s the occasional short and to-the-point story of the death of a high-profile terrorist, stripped of context and accompanying details.

The nature of investigative journalism, however, is aptly summarized by the founding mantra of Al Jazeera America: “There’s

more to it.” Indeed, the newly launched, New York–based cable news channel devotes an entire section of its website to the topic of combat drones, and it was one of few U.S. agencies (save for unabashedly left-leaning companies like The Huffington Post and MSNBC) to feature its own interviews with the Rehman family, gaining contrasting perspectives and covering the Tuesday briefing in substantial depth.

Global news agencies, meanwhile, have not hesitated to put the U.S. government’s conspicuous silence on the issue in perspective. The Guardian, for one, included in its thorough coverage of Tuesday’s hearing an emphasis on the mysterious denial of the U.S. State Department to grant a visa to the family’s lawyer, a respected diplomat. Echoing this focus was Russia’s RT, which, along with Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, publishes frequent op-eds condemning U.S. drone strikes, citing the intensifying anti-American sentiment they are fueling in northwest Pakistan among other factors. And even these perspectives miss details uncovered by international non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose most recent estimates at civilian casualties due to drones suggest that the U.S. is likely guilty of war crimes.

The reality that America’s mainstream media often fails to emphasize is that stories like the one told by the Rehman family on Tuesday are not unique; they are indicative of grave problems that Americans — and the politicians they elect — need to hear. If the United States government is to be held accountable for its actions, journalists must do their part.