Glenn Greenwald (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)
Glenn Greenwald (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

Journalist Glenn Greenwald promised that the Pierre Omidyar-bankrolled First Look Media Web site would take it to vested interests in Washington. The debut edition of First Look’s first digital magazine began delivering on the pledge with this headline under the bylines of Jeremy Scahill and Greenwald: “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program.”

The story relies on a “former drone operator” with links to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the National Security Agency (NSA). It asserts that instead of using hard-to-get human intelligence, the administration’s drone program “identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies.” The result, says the source, is as follows: “Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there. But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady.”

What gives this First Look piece its edge, though, is how it refers to the program that carries out what is often referred to as the government’s “targeted killing” program, a campaign that has claimed more than 3,000 lives overseas. Let’s just say that Greenwald & Co. aren’t swallowing that terminology in all instances. For example, from the NSA piece:

The government does not appear to apply the same standard of care in selecting whom to target for assassination.

And:

The government’s assassination program is actually constructed, he adds, to avoid self-correction.

And:

Whether or not Obama is fully aware of the errors built into the program of targeted assassination, he and his top advisors have repeatedly made clear that the president himself directly oversees the drone operation and takes full responsibility for it.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked Greenwald about the language in an interview this afternoon. “What we’re trying to do is use the accurate term rather than the euphemistic term that the government wants us to use,” says Greenwald, noting that “most media outlets wouldn’t do it.” Greenwald and his colleagues at First Look didn’t “discuss it much,” he says. “But I think everybody understood it was the right headline because of the accuracy issue.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is on record as disagreeing. Referring to the targeting of terrorists overseas, Holder in a March 2012 speech at the Northwestern University School of Law argued:

Some have called such operations ‘assassinations.’ They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.

Mainstream media outlets appear to side with Holder on this particular issue. Last October, for instance, the Washington Post published a story on precisely the same topic as the Scahill-Greenwald collaboration of today. It was headlined, “Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program.

When asked whether the Associated Press would pull a Greenwald on the assassination matter, spokesman Paul Colford referred the Erik Wemple Blog to the wire service’s style guide, which puts borders around “assassination”: “Use the term only if it involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack.” Well, the dropping of bombs from unmanned aerial devices clearly qualifies as “surprise.” But are al-Qaeda operatives “politically important or prominent individuals”?

Recent AP coverage suggests that the wire service believes they aren’t. Clips from the AP show a preference for “drone program” and “targeted killing,” though a Jan. 2013 story on a drone killing contained a telling line. It covered the killing of the Taliban’s Maulvi Nazir, and reported, “Nazir had survived several assassination attempts, including at least two U.S. drone strikes.” Colford says that folks at the AP don’t recall ever using the term “assassination” as shorthand for the targeted killing program.

The New York Times also issued a referral to its stylebook, which nods in general agreement with AP’s: “assassin, assassinate, assassination. Generally reserve these terms for a fatal surprise attack on a prominent person, or for the attacker in such a crime. The terms are not synonyms for kill, killer, murder or murderer (a usage that sometimes occurs in overliteral translation from other languages).”

Elaborating a bit on the New York Times’s thinking, spokeswoman Eileen Murphy passes along these thoughts: “Our stylebook answers the broad question:  We usually apply it to prominent people. And it is most often used in a political context. The president of a country is assassinated. Like most of our style guidelines, we apply on a case-by-case basis. Also … For these drone strikes on terrorists, most of our articles use ‘targeted killings.’  Most of these people are not prominently known or in political office.”

An inquiry to the Washington Post on this topic is pending. Washington Post National Editor Cameron Barr explains the paper’s position: “For as long as I can remember we have employed ‘targeted killing’ and other neutral terms to refer to the killing of alleged members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates by the United States. ‘Assassination’ connotes the surprise killing of a prominent person, usually in a political context. Many, perhaps most, of the targets of drone strikes are not prominent.”

As a Guardian columnist, Greenwald had used “assassination” to characterize the program. The Guardian, he says, didn’t edit such postings and didn’t have a problem with the terminology in any case. “That was one thing they were actually always good about,” he says.

The AP/New York Times criteria for “assassination” don’t impress Greenwald, who notes that these operations often take place away from a battlefield while the victim is “sleeping on his couch next to his kids” or similar quotidian pursuit. “When Iranian nuclear scientists were systematically murdered, that was widely referred to as ‘assassinations‘ even though they’re not particularly prominent or politically important. I’d say anyone who is murdered deliberately away from a battlefield for political purposes is being assassinated,” he notes.

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.