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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

How Many Unnamed Officials Does It Take to Deny Civilian Deaths?

What do you do when the president of another country says US forces killed civilians there? You get US and other allied officials to anonymously deny it. 

At least, that's what you'd do if you were the New York Times. Under the headline "Karzai Insists US Forces Killed Civilians in a Raid," reporter Rod Norland (11/24/13) described a house raid in Afghanistan where, according to Afghan officials, US forces killed civilians. He writes:

American officials reacted with anger and exasperation on Saturday after Mr. Karzai publicly accused American Special Forces troops of killing civilians in a raid on an Afghan home; American officials said it was an Afghan-led raid that killed only insurgents.

 But it was apparently the kind of anger that had to be expressed anonymously: 

  • "'There is no doubt that these are spurious civilian casualty allegations,' said a senior Western official here. 'People are fairly mad at Karzai now; there’s a lot of anger and a lot of disdain.'"
  • "'Unfortunately, some people are using allegations of civilian casualties for political purposes,' an International Security Assistance Force official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of official policy."
  • "A United States official here, also speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said: 'Misleading statements like this do not help to finalize the bilateral security agreement as soon as possible this year, which is essential to the future of Afghanistan and the confidence of the Afghan people.'"

Of course, there's a chance these sources are telling the truth, and that it's Afghan President Hamid Karzai who's making false claims. But the reliance on so many officials who have very specific criticisms of the Afghan story, but who can't stand behind them with their own names, is curious.

Rodland reports that Karzai's spokesperson Aimal Faizi noted that "American officials had always been quick to deny that victims of such raids were civilians." Which is all the more reason to be skeptical of their account of what happened. That record should obligate reporters to get these sources on the record.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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