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How CNN Analyst Peter Bergen is Misleading the Public On Killer Drones

CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen produced an error-ridden graph showing that no civilians have been killed in Pakistan this year by US drones.
 
 
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Peter Bergen answers questions at the Third Army/U.S. Army Central quarterly command professional development program Oct. 26.
Photo Credit: Eric Brown/U.S. Army Central Public Affairs

 
 
 
 

Following recent revelations by the New York Times that all military-aged males in Waziristan are considered fair game by the CIA in its drone strikes, many US journalists have been reassessing how they report on deaths in the attacks.

So when CNN’s national security analyst Peter Bergen produced a graph claiming that no civilians have been killed in Pakistan this year by US drones, his views were bound to attract criticism. Conor Friedersdorf, a columnist at The Atlantic, accused CNN and Bergen of running ‘ bogus data‘, for example.

Bergen is also a director of the New America Foundation, which for more than three years has run a database on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and produces estimates of numbers killed. That data is the most frequent source of statistics for the US media, including CNN itself. So the accuracy of its material is important.

Yet there are credible reports of civilian deaths in Pakistan this year. And unlike the New America Foundation the Bureau actively tracks those claims.

Up to July 16 for example, between three and 27 civilians have been reported killed in Pakistan this year, out of 148 – 220 deaths. Some were actively defined as civilians by news organisations including Reuters and AFP. But these are not necessarily the only civilian deaths. Ambivalent reports might sometimes refer only to ‘people’ or ‘local tribesmen’ killed. More research is needed. And of the remaining alleged militants killed, we have so far been able to name just 13 individuals.

Bergen’s claim of zero reported civilian casualties this year is therefore factually inaccurate.

To be so categoric is also problematic. The Bureau’s own data shows that of at least 2,500 people killed by the CIA in Pakistan since 2004, we publicly only know the identities of around 500. Most of the others were reported to be alleged militants by local and international media. We can say no more than that.

It is not just in NAF’s 2012 data that credible reports of civilian deaths have been missed or ignored. NAF’s Pakistan data also contains many other inaccuracies. A number of confirmed strikes are omitted, for instance, and its overall estimates of those killed are significantly below even the CIA’s own count. The consequence is a skewed picture of drone activity which continues to inform many opinion-makers.

Subjective choices

On July 13 Peter Bergen responded to his recent critics in a CNN article which stated that reported civilian casualties in Pakistan are in decline – as the Bureau itself recently noted. He also repeated his claim of no civilian casualties in Pakistan this year. And he attacked the Bureau for its own recording work in this area:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s high estimate of 24 civilian deaths in 2012 came in part from reports provided by an unreliable Pakistani news outlet as well as the claims of a local Taliban commander, which contradicted all other reports.

It’s worth unpicking Bergen’s claims in some detail.

His comments appear to refer to a CIA drone strike on February 9 in which local Taliban commander Badar Mansoor died. Citing just four sources, NAF’s data reports only that three to five ‘militants’, including Mansoor, died in the attack.

But this is a misrepresentation which ignores credible claims of civilian casualties, as the Bureau’s own Pakistan database makes clear.

Among 18 unique sources we cite, the Bureau links to a story by Reuters, the international news agency. Reuters notes a Taliban commander’s claims that Mansoor’s wife and child died in the February 9 attack. Local paper The News also reported that Mansoor’s wife and children were either injured or killed; and a Bureau field researcher reported anecdotal claims from the town that some of the leader’s family had died.

 
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