Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

Chuck Todd's Meet The Press explored the U.S. drone campaign, but there were clear limits. (Image: screenshot/NBC News)

NBC: Someday We Might Learn That Drones Kill Civilians

A critical look at US drone attacks is not the kind of thing you expect to see on a Sunday chat show, but that is what NBC's Meet the Press gave viewers on December 14. Still, there were some problems.

Anchor Chuck Todd explained at the beginning that Barack Obama's foreign policy has been drone-dependent:

While he has gradually withdrawn US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, he has rapidly escalated America's drone war. It's a highly controversial tactic aimed at taking out terrorist targets without military casualties. But critics argue that it's killed thousands of innocent civilians in countries like Yemen and Pakistan.

This is somewhat misleading; Obama's Afghan policy involved a rapid escalation of US troops.

The report turned to NBC correspondent Richard Engel, who tells viewers that "some are asking whether years from now we'll debate drones the way we're debating torture."

To which one might ask, "Why wait?"

Engel explains:

The CIA's clandestine fleet of armed drones has become central to its counterterrorism mission. The secretive nature of the program means no one can tell for sure how many of the estimated 3,500 people killed mostly in Pakistan and Yemen were insurgents and how many were innocent civilians.

It's true that the drone program is secretive. But there are no wars where one can tell "for sure" how many civilians were killed. And there are several efforts to identify the victims of US drone attacks, so it is possible to give viewers a sense of how many innocents have been killed.

The expert NBC relies on, Micah Zenko, wrote a piece recently (Politics, Power and Preventive Action, 11/21/14) that tried to pull together different studies of US drone strikes to answer this question. The answer? Around 473 as of last month, based on an average of three studies.

There are bound to be disagreements about the data; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for instance, counts 688 civilians killed in Pakistan (more accurately, between 416 and 959); the other counts are lower. But this is not unusual, and doubt about the precise total should not be used as an excuse to say the tally cannot be known.

Parts of the report are surprisingly blunt–like when Engel says, "There is nothing antiseptic about a missile that hits a village." And a follow-up discussion with anchor Chuck Todd started off by talking about how torture and drone strikes create more terrorism, and an explanation of "signature strikes"– i.e., attacks based not on specific intelligence but on whether a potential target is exhibiting behavior that makes people watching them from thousands of miles away suspicious.

It is the kind of conversation we don't often see on US television–but it was hard not to notice the limits.

Near the end of the piece, Todd explains:

This is where we're going to find out 10 years from now– we could be finding out we droned innocents.

Why would this take 10 years? The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is not waiting–you can go to their Naming the Dead website and read their reporting about US drone strikes in Pakistan.

And one of the most widely discussed drone attacks in Yemen was the one that killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American and son of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The younger Awlaki was not targeted for an attack,  but appears to have been an innocent victim of a strike intended to kill someone else (Think Progress, 5/23/13).

There's no need, in other words, to wait a decade to "find out" US drones have killed innocents–we already know they have, most likely several hundred of them.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Peter Hart

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the senior field communications officer for Food & Water Watch. 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" (2003).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Cancel It, Don't Means Test It!' Omar Says of Student Debt

Progressive lawmakers and other critics continue to warn the Biden administration against the "logistical nightmare" of limiting debt cancellation by income.

Jessica Corbett ·


Trump DOJ Casting Long Shadow Over Biden Admin: Analysis

The Biden administration "should adopt Trump's positions about as often as a stopped clock is accurate," the Revolving Door Project argues.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Fueling the Flames': Model Shows Growing Risk of Wildfires in US

"It's time to end fossil fuels and better manage our forests."

Jessica Corbett ·


Sentenced for Coal Blockade, Climate Activists Vow to 'Continue to Do What Must Be Done'

"The judge seemed more concerned that these non-violent activists disrupted profits than the fact that the continued use of coal is causing irreparable harm to the planet," said one supporter.

Julia Conley ·


Chile Finalizes New Draft Constitution in Bid to Bury Pinochet's Neoliberal Legacy

"This is an ecological and equal constitution with social rights at its very core," the president of Chile's constituent assembly said of the new document, which the nation's adults will vote on in September.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo