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What next? A drone war against the press?

Posted: May 29, 2013 4:35 p.m.
Updated: May 31, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Could a president order drone strikes against journalists? I’m not worried. No, really. Not much.

But the broad sweep of our government’s counterterrorism policy on targeted killings by unmanned drones, coupled with the Justice Department’s new aggressiveness against media leaks, makes me wonder whether we journos should watch our step.

I first heard the question raised back in February by Amy Davidson, a New Yorker senior editor in an online panel she hosted on the ethics of choosing drone targets. Would a journalist working overseas qualify as a potential target, she asked, if he or she was about to release classified information that might provoke a terror strike or other real danger to Americans?

One panelist, Michael Walzer, author of “Just and Unjust Wars,” thought, no, the danger to Americans had “to come directly not indirectly from the target before he can be a target.”

But Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers who has written several books on the ethics of war, thought the journalist could be a target if that was the only way to save innocent lives. Even so, he cautioned that the possibility of such a circumstance was very remote.

That’s a relief. But the central question -- who is “dangerous” and who decides? -- remained unsettled and unsettling.

Three months later, the question has taken on a new relevance with disclosures of Justice Department probes into call records of more than 20 phone lines of 100 journalists for The Associated Press. Investigators were pursing the leaker of a U.S. counterterrorism operation in Yemen.

Even more shocking was the later news that in an application for a warrant that allowed the FBI to read FOX News reporter James Rosen’s private emails, the bureau had alleged that Rosen could be a “co-conspirator” in spy charges under the Espionage Act. The agents were pursuing a leak of information to Rosen in 2009 on how North Korea might react to a United Nations resolution that condemned its nuclear test.

I don’t raise the very remote -- I still hope -- possibility of targeted drone strikes against journalists because I think it’s going to happen. I raise it to illustrate how murky our current drone policy is in regard to how such decisions are made and how easily they might be subject to abuse.

I also raise it to help me to put you into the shoes of people who live in countries that are on the receiving end of our drone strikes. We should not be surprised that our drones may be stirring up so much anti-American resentment on the ground that they create more terrorists than they kill.

I certainly prefer the use of drones over the option of sending in ground troops and endangering even more innocent lives. But the ease of drone use is tempting enough to lead to overuse, especially if it is not guided by clear policies with clear limits.

President Obama took an important step toward much-needed clarity on both the drone and media issues in his national security speech last week at the National Defense University, although he needs to go farther.

On drones, he wants limits. But he offered few specifics, except promises to try harder to avoid killing innocent people. He could begin by ending “signature strikes,” in which drones are used against individuals who demonstrate the “signature” of militant activity. That unfortunately has called for enough guesswork to lead to the deaths of innocent people. Obama indicated he wants to at least reduce “signature strikes,” but left a troubling number of vague loopholes and unanswered questions.

And “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” he said of the chilling effect imposed by aggressive leak investigations. Yet journalists remained at risk even as he spoke, and his proposed legislation probably would not have applied to the AP or FOX News cases.

It would be better to open up the process by requiring prosecutors to convince a federal judge of the need to search journalists’ records. Treating reporters like criminal suspects is a precedent this administration never should have set.

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