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Targeted killings: Conspiracy of media silence

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination hearing for U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 7 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Lies, secrets, silence. They were all blown out of Washington's deep political waters this week by sudden disclosures on targeted killings by CIA-operated drones.

First there was a "white paper" report on the rationale of the Obama administration's black ops -- the airborne death squads that have knocked off hundreds of real or suspected Al Qaeda operatives and an unknown number of civilians. Then U.S. media were scrambling to air their months-long knowledge of a not-so-secret Saudi Arabian drone base they had been keeping under wraps at the urging of security officials.

These awkward facts only came to light because they would have surfaced at a hearing with President Barack Obama's candidate for CIA chief, John Brennan, compiler of the now-famous "kill list" of drone targets.

But here's the thing.

"If it's so damn important to protect national security, why is it that we don't mind putting our troops in 'imminent danger' when a candidacy for a CIA position comes up in public?" asks Stephen Ward, who heads the Center for Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And why were the media so quick to agree to keep those secrets in the first place, rather than probing the nature of the 'danger' they were warned against?

Part of the problem is that since 9/11 "national security" has acquired almost sacred status, protected by layers of punitive laws. Officials have only to mouth the phrase and the media is expected to fall into line. As George W. Bush proclaimed, "you're either with us or with the terrorists."

But there's also a more long term coziness between political journos and politicians which sometimes brings nuggests of "exclusive" information, but just as often keeps valuable gems from public view. One slip and you'll never eat lunch in DC again - in the company of influential officials.

The drone stories caught journalists between duty to the public and duty to country, as defined by the officials who lay down the rules. "There are times when you have to minimize the harm and not put anybody in imminent danger," says Ward. "But it gets dicey when it comes to national security, which is the most overused term that all governments employ to hide information and pressure us not to report."

As for harm, when it comes to policies that are covert, unaccountable and result in the death of citizens as well as foreigners, "need to know" can also be applied to public interest. What you don't know can hurt you.

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Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work


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