It is the collective practice of policymakers and pundits to diminish the work and impact of journalists as circulation rates decline, revenue streams collapse, and young people increasingly receive foreign news from late night comedy shows. However, information uncovered by journalists has been critical to understanding the use of drones and targeted killings in non-battlefield settings under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Although there are a growing number of thoughtful studies on the legality, morality, efficacy, accuracy, and long-term consequences of targeted killings, it is important to remember that such analysis would be impossible without the considerable leg-work by investigative journalists.
In particular, a handful of journalists have been responsible for many of the important revelations about U.S. targeted killings:
- Barton Gellman (2001): Bill Clinton's kill list; James Risen and David Johnston (2002): George W. Bush's kill list; Jo Becker and Scott Shane (2011): Barack Obama's kill list; and Dana Priest and William Arkin: "U.S. national security agencies have maintained at least three separate ‘kill lists' of individuals, several sources explained."
- Eric Schmitt and David Sanger (2008): Bush first authorized the practice of signature strikes: "Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance."
- Siobhan Gorman (2009): Before CIA director Leon Panetta shut it down, the agency maintained paramilitary teams to kill or capture high-value suspected terrorists in populated areas where airstrikes could have caused collateral damage.
- Pir Zubair Shah (2009): The reported practice of "double-tap" drone strikes: "In an initial strike, two missiles hit the compound, killing one person. When people rushed to the scene to rescue the wounded, two more missiles struck, killing eight, the residents said." And Joby Warrick (2011) for reporting CIA strikes against a Mehsud clan funeral procession in South Waziristan.
- Bob Woodward (2010): The CIA maintains Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams of some 3,000 Afghans: "Without the local informants these teams develop, there would not be good signals intelligence so that the drones would not know where to target."
- Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Julian Barnes (2012): Obama authorized the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct signature strikes in Yemen, which "gives the agencies more leeway to conduct strikes on a wider range of targets, including lower-level fighters whose identities aren't known."
- Kimberly Dozier (2012): "John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets."
- Daniel Klaidman (2012): Obama authorized signature strikes in Pakistan and Yemen before he was ever briefed on what they were.
- Greg Miller (2012): "The Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the ‘disposition matrix.'"
- Ken Dilanian (2012): How the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence executes oversight of CIA drone strikes.
This list is by no means comprehensive. For instance, it does not include the critical work by others like Jane Mayer (2009), who provided the first comprehensive overview of the Obama administration's reliance on drones; Danger Room, which breaks stories and provides critical context to reporting of other journalists on America's secret wars; Jeremy Scahill's on-the-ground reporting from Pakistan (2009), Somalia (2011), and Yemen (2012); and David Rhode (2010), who wrote about the CIA's drone wars from the New York Times bureau in Islamabad, and, while kidnapped and held hostage by Taliban militants for seven months, experienced the impact of drone strikes firsthand, when one struck a few hundred yards from the compound where he was held in South Waziristan.
Like other opaque and evolving U.S. foreign policy activities, these reporters built on the works of one other by enhancing, refining, and eliminating information as new details were exposed. And as the Obama administration vastly increased the scope and intensity of lethal attacks, the reporting kept pace. In her excellent study of drone strikes coverage by five major U.S. publications, Tara McKelvey demonstrated that the number of articles per year nearly doubled between 2009 and November 2012, from 326 to 625.