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Tonight, Bob Schieffer Can Perform Real Journalism on Drone Strikes

One of the most fundamental tasks of journalism in a free society is to press the government to disgorge information.

One of the most fundamental tasks of journalism in a free society is to press the government to disgorge information. And nowhere is this task more important than when it comes to “national security.”

A key power of the government is the power to withhold information. It is obviously in the public interest that the government should try to keep some things secret.

However, it is equally obvious that the power of government to withhold information is fundamentally ripe for abuse. There are at least two reasons why the government would want to keep information secret: 1) because disclosure of information would likely harm the public interest and 2) because while disclosure of information would serve the public interest, it would likely harm the government’s interest by assisting critics of government policy to make their case.

In principle, these are two totally different cases. In practice, whether information is being withheld in a particular case in order to protect the public interest or to protect a government policy from scrutiny might be a judgment call, subject to dispute. And if the government is allowed to make that judgment call without any outside pressure, that is a situation that is ripe for abuse, because the government has a self-interested incentive to judge that the disclosure of information that would help critics make their case would not serve the public interest.

In a criminal trial, there’s a process called “discovery,” in which the defense can force the government to disclose information known only to the government which would help the defense make its case. Failure of the government to disclose such information can be considered serious prosecutorial misconduct which can result in the dismissal of the case, as in the corruption case of former Senator Ted Stevens.

In the case of U.S. drone strike policy in Pakistan, the U.S. government is withholding information that would help critics of the policy make their case. This information is “classified,” which implies an assertion and judgment by the government that the disclosure of this information would harm the public interest.

It is a fundamental task of journalism to put this judgment and assertion under pressure.

The Acting U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Hoagland, has recently disclosed that 1) the U.S. government has an official count of how many civilians it thinks have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and that 2) this number is “classified.”

If this number were publicly released, it would help critics of the drone strike policy make their case, because critics of the drone strike policy could present evidence to the media that the official U.S. number is too low. So long as the official number is not disclosed, critics of the drone strike policy cannot challenge the official number. Is the decision to keep this number classified in the public interest, or is it about protecting the policy from criticism? Journalism should press on this.

Journalists and researchers have reported that the U.S. has targeted rescuers with “secondary” drone strikes in Pakistan. International law experts have said that if the U.S. has targeted rescuers, it’s a war crime. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan has denied the allegation.

It is a fundamental task of journalism to establish the truth. Has the U.S. targeted rescuers with “secondary” drone strikes in Pakistan? Is the U.S. still doing so?

It would be a great advance for the transparency and accountability of the drone strike program if Bob Schieffer would press on these details tonight. But if he asks any question about drone strike policy at all, it would be a step forward. You can urge Bob Schieffer to ask a question on drones strike policy here.

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