John Hanrahan
May 13, 2012

The Times let government officials anonymously attack a group of journalists and a lawyer who have uncovered evidence that belies the White House’s claim that drones aren’t killing many civilians. Was their rationale for that justified?

A human rights lawyer and a group of investigative journalists who have exposed the extensive civilian casualties from CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are being smeared by anonymous U.S. government officials, who have even accused them of being sympathetic to al Qaeda.

Two of the anonymous accusations came in articles in The New York Times, despite the paper’s own rules against personal attacks by unnamed sources.

Pakistani human rights attorney Shahzad Akbar and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) say the campaign is intended to deter mainstream news organizations from reporting that the White House is lying about how many innocent people are being killed by the drone strikes.

President Obama’s top terrorism adviser John O. Brennan recently contended that civilian deaths were “exceedingly rare.” The BIJ, though, puts total drone deaths in Pakistan since 2004 at between 2,440 and 3,113, and they say between 479 and 821 of the dead were civilians, including 174 children. Drone attacks in Pakistan have dramatically increased since Obama took office: President Bush was responsible for 52; Obama for 270 and counting.

Relying on the BIJ’s comprehensive research and his own investigations in support of a number of clients who are drone victims or families of victims and who are suing the CIA, Akbar has for the last two years sharply challenged U.S. government assertions regarding civilian casualties, most recently by filing two lawsuits in Pakistan, demanding a criminal investigation into the killings by Hellfire missile of some 50 people, including tribal elders in Waziristan in March 2011. (See’s May 10 story, Civilian drone victims, unrecognized by the U.S. government and public, seek justice.)

Akbar’s public criticisms of the program, including naming the CIA station chief in Pakistan and calling for his trial on murder charges for drone killings of civilians, has made him a particular thorn in the side of U.S. officials.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a not-for-profit organization made up of former editors and reporters for major U.K. news organizations that undertakes investigations on a variety of subjects for various print and broadcast outlets in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Akbar and BIJ senior reporter Chris Woods both spoke recently at an international drone conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the peace group Code Pink, the U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve, and the Pakistan-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which Akbar heads.

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