“How We Read a NYTimes Story on Drone Strikes in Yemen” by Ryan Goodman & Sarah Knuckey, originally published on Just Security.
As usual, much of the work of the devil is in the details, pointed out here:
How We Read a NYTimes Story on Drone Strikes in Yemen
By Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 8:03 AM
In this post, we’re trying something new. Below, we present an almost line-by-line annotation of yesterday’s New York Times story on US and Yemeni military operations in Yemen. Among other things, the following is intended to identify legal implications of the news being reported, the significance of some of the revelations, and paths for further investigative reporting.
U.S. Drones and Yemeni Forces Kill Qaeda-Linked Fighters, Officials Say
By Eric Schmitt. Saeed Al Batati contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.
New York Times
WASHINGTON — American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants linked to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months, officials from both countries said Monday.
 Note that the story leads with “militants” instead of “alleged militants.” Technically this difference is solved by the reference to “officials … said” at the end of the sentence. Still, the lede creates an initial impression that the individuals killed were indeed militants, rather than signalling to the reader that the issue might be contested. This kind of formulation — asserting militancy as fact, and later attributing those claims to officials — occurs frequently throughout this story. Given the anonymity of the official claims, repeated cases in which official claims have subsequently proven unreliable, the difficulty of determining “militancy,” and what is at stake in the categorization, the NYT could assist its readers by including more nuance in such coverage. In addition to signals such as “alleged,” some stories could place an initial reference to “militants” in scare quotes.
 It is a significant understatement to call this one of the largest attacks in “months.” If the reported casualties are accurate, the weekend strikes were one of the largest attacks in the history of US strikes in Yemen. Prior attacks resulting in such large numbers of deaths in a short amount of time include the July-August 2013 cluster of strikes (9 strikes, 31-49 estimated deaths), March 2012 strikes, and the December 2009 al-Majala strike.
 As is often the case in news pieces on US “targeted killings,” the bulk of the information in this story is sourced to unnamed “officials” from both Yemen and the United States. In this story, anonymous officials are cited frequently throughout; yet CIA, Pentagon, and White House spokespersons refused to comment or to comment specifically on these strikes.
At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement.
 Note that the reference to “officials said” drops from sentences such as this one, and now terms like “Qaeda fighters” have neither that qualification nor a qualification like “alleged.”
 According to other news outlets — such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse – Yemeni official statements included the fact that these facilities were in Bayda province. This is important because it would suggest the militants were not directly threatening US persons. (And President Obama’s new rules of May 23, 2013 limit US lethal actions to threats only to US persons.) Are you curious as to whether Reuters/AFP got this right, and the NYT missed its relevance? The official statement on the Yemeni Defense Ministry’s website identifies Bayda as the target.
 It is striking that in light of such a “massive and unprecedented” operation, there has not been more reporting on what exactly the militants were allegedly up to.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said Monday that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s. The government’s statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday.
 It would be helpful to inform the reader that Yemeni official statements like these have in the past proven wrong after time passes following a strike.
 Such widely varying numbers should raise questions about the quality of the intelligence before (as well as after) the strikes. The poor quality of these numbers also raises questions about whether the US and Yemeni authorities were able to know — in advance — that no civilians were at risk of being killed. (This is important because President Obama’s new rules of May 23 permit lethal force only if there is “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.”)
Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed in the attacks. As part of a campaign using armed drones in Yemen, the United States has been trying to kill Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s master bomb maker. But American officials said Monday that those men were not the intended targets in these strikes.
 This phrase may mean the officials are certain that all the individuals killed were militants, and the government is simply working to determine their specific roles and identities. That said, the phrase also raises questions about the quality of intelligence before the strike. If the intelligence was lacking, how certain were the US and Yemeni governments that the targets were only militants and not also civilians? How certain were they that the militants were “leading elements” of AQAP, as Yemen’s government alleged?
 This is a major revelation. It contradicts rumors and speculation that Asiri was a target of the operations, and notably it contradicts an earlier report by the Long War Journal which concluded that he was a target.
The precise role of the United States in the airstrikes and ground operations was not immediately clear. American officials said the airstrikes had been carried out by drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, but an agency spokesman declined to comment. Other officials said American Special Operations military personnel had supported the Yemeni operations on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance. The Pentagon declined to discuss the operations.
 This is also a major revelation. It also raises specific concerns about whether the US is now fighting a domestic insurgency alongside the Yemeni government. As with reports that the US military may pilot CIA drones, these operations in Yemen also show the need for a more nuanced understanding of the CIA’s vs. Pentagon’s roles in targeted strikes–more nuanced than common accounts otherwise suggest. This would be a fruitful area for investigation.
The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, referred all questions about the operations, which started on Saturday and continued past midnight on Sunday, to the Yemeni government, and he spoke only in broad terms about the counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries.
 Might Carney’s statement involve an implicit form of endorsement of the Yemeni government’s representation of the facts?
“We have a strong collaborative relationship, as you know, with the Yemeni government and worked together on various initiatives to counter the shared threat we face from A.Q.A.P.,” said Mr. Carney, referring to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
American officials sought to play down the United States’ role and to allow Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations. They had a troubled relationship with the longtime president who preceded him, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they have voiced confidence in Mr. Hadi and increased aid to the country.
 This statement is potentially more nefarious than first meets the eye. Recall the Wikileaks cable from General Petraeus’s meeting with Yemen’s then-President Saleh:
“‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,’ Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government].’”
The drone attacks were the largest barrage of airstrikes carried out in Yemen this year — 11 in all so far, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes — and one of the largest strikes carried out since President Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan.
In his speech in May, Mr. Obama said targeted killing operations were carried out only against militants who posed a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” He also said no strike could be authorized without “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” a bar he described as “the highest standard we can set.”
 Hallelujah! It is terrific to see a news report squarely raise these two questions. Despite significant media coverage of these strikes, to our knowledge, Schmitt’s piece was the first to do this so explicitly. The strike standards are set forth in a government document, “U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities.” Only a summarized version of the document is publicly available. When the standards were released on May 23, 2013, we raised initial questions about their content and we expressed concerns about the continuing lack of transparency. It is important to raise those same questions and concerns in light of the events in Yemen and elsewhere.
Given that the administration would not even confirm that American drones carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans. The Qaeda affiliate has in the past targeted the United States Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital.
 This is a very important assessment, and again raises a key question about the strikes. Given that it remains completely unanswered, it is precisely the kind of questioning that should appear in news reports. When the last significant series of strikes occurred in Yemen in July-August 2013, news reports routinely quoted from officials who claimed that al Qaeda was planning to attack US embassies. We are surprised that there has been so little reporting now about what specific threat these alleged militants posed to “US persons.” There may be sound reasons that justify the US assisting Yemen with attacks against threats to Yemeni installations or persons, but the US has been very clear that it will strike only if there is a threat to US persons.
The raid by Yemen’s Counterterrorism Unit late Sunday, which occurred on the main road connecting the southern province of Shabwa with the adjacent province of Marib, culminated nearly 48 hours of intensive airstrikes.
“The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place,” Mr. Hadi said in the government’s statement.
The statement said three airstrikes had destroyed al Qaeda training camp in a remote mountainous area in Abyan, a southern province, killing two dozen militants, including foreign fighters.
The government said several other airstrikes had targeted vehicles and militants in Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda Provinces.
Mohsen Labhas, a resident of Al Lahab, a village near a highway that connects the cities of Ataq and Bayhan in Shabwa Province, said that after hearing gunfire on Sunday night, he and other residents jumped in their cars and raced to the scene. They were met by American drones and helicopters. “We abandoned our car since we thought that the aircraft might target us, but it turned out that it warned us from approaching the area,” he said.
 The use of helicopters — manned, low-flying aircraft — is important in considering whether the US is now a party to an internal armed conflict in Yemen. Unlike drones, helicopters expose US forces to risk of casualties, which may implicate whether congressional authorization is required. (See also the reference above to the US providing support “on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance.”)
 Assuming the witness accurately understood these events, it is very positive to see reporting — in the context of targeted killings and drone strikes — on efforts taken by the US and Yemen to warn civilians, and to keep civilians away from areas of active fighting. We do not recall such efforts being reported in relation to previous strikes.
“Nearly half an hour later, the aircraft fired a missile at a target on the ground,” Mr. Labhas said.
A strike on Saturday morning targeted a vehicle in Bayda Province, killing 10 militants and wounding one, according to the Yemeni government. It said intelligence had indicated that the fighters were planning to attack important installations.
“Regrettably, three civilians were also killed during the attack and five were injured when their pickup truck unexpectedly appeared next to the targeted vehicle,” the statement said.
 Given the central role that allegations of civilian deaths and injuries have played in targeted killing debates, we were surprised to see the details about this aspect of the operations so far down in the article. Nevertheless, it is important to note that it has been rare for officials to acknowledge so quickly that civilians were killed. This is a positive step, and we hope it signals a new approach to responding to civilian harm. Finally here, one news story can’t do everything, but it would be good to see some journalists now follow up this story to investigate whether the governments pay compensation to these victims and families, and whether there is any form of public acknowledgement to the families of these mistakes and an explanation of their family members’ deaths.
 The civilian vehicle “unexpectedly appeared”? This suggests an answer to earlier questions raised by some commentators about whether the civilians were killed simply by accident, or whether they were targeted on the mistaken assumption that they were al Qaeda. Yet the claim that the civilian vehicle unexpectedly appeared raises its own questions, particularly about what precautions are taken before attacks, how a “near certainty” standard is applied in practice, and whether the technical capacities drones have to enable precision targeting match the capabilities often claimed by officials.