“Assassination” or “Killing”? AP’s Double Standard on Counter-Terror

How should reporters describe a targeted attack against a terrorist? A sterile “drone strike”? A neutral “killing”? Or an “assassination,” with that word’s negative connotations?

At the Associated Press, the answer apparently depends on who is responsible for the strike.

The Israeli military this morning killed Hamas’s senior militant commander in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed al-Jabari, after days of cross border attacks from Gaza that included over 100 rockets launched toward Israeli towns and an attack on an Israeli jeep patrolling its side of the border.

Associated Press coverage of the incident referred to Israel’s pinpoint air strike as an “assassination,” described it as a resumption of “Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders,” pointed out that “Israeli aircraft have previously assassinated the previous commander of Hamas’ military wing,” and noted that “Israeli officials had said that they were considering assassinating top Hamas officials following a wave of rocket fire.”

One might think AP’s style book calls for describing such attacks assassinations. But the wire service has a whole different standard when it comes to U.S. drone strikes that so frequently target terrorists in Yemen and Afghanistan.

According to the Nexus news database, there have been 2,907 AP news stories mentioning one of the two countries along with the word “drone” or “drones.” Of those stories, 208 also mention “assassination” or some derivative of that word. But only one of the 208 stories referred to an American drone operation as an attempted “assassination.” (A May 2003 article stated, “The U.S. government last year declared Hekmatyar a terrorist, and in May 2002 a CIA drone tried to assassinate him near Kabul, but missed and killed some of his followers.”) In the 9 years that followed, during which U.S. targeted killings increased dramatically, not a single AP article described American drone attacks as assassinations in the voice of the reporter.

Most of the 208 articles used the word “assassination” in describing attacks by al Qaida or other killings by anti-American insurgents. And another fewmake mention of Israel’s “assassination” of Hezbollah terror leader Imad Mughniyeh and Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin.

But notwithstanding the one exception, the Associated Press is extremely cautious measured when dealing with American strikes, using the loaded term “assassination” only when paraphrasing or quoting critics of the U.S. practice. A November 2010 story, for example asserted that

The drone strikes to kill high-ranking militants is rarely officially acknowledged by Washington. The program, which U.S. officials say has killed hundreds of insurgents, has been condemned by critics who say it may constitute illegal assassinations and violate international law.

Other stories focused on the debate over how to describe the drone strikes, but refrained from weighing in on one side or the other.

A September 2011 piece referred to U.S. officials who “point out that assassinations are outlawed by the U.S., which condones drone strikes against terrorists as acts of war against combatants.”

In a December 2002, article about an American list of terror leaders whom the U.S. military potentially kill, the AP reporter cited American officials who noted that the list “did not abolish a long-standing presidential executive order banning assassinations, as the terrorists are defined as ‘enemy combatants’ and thus legal targets.”

Likewise, a December 2005 story quoted an Americal official stating that if the U.S. was involved in the killing of a particular al Qaida leader, “This would not be an assassination.” He continued, “This is not law enforcement, this is not assassination. This is going against the leadership of an organization that has declared war on the United States.”

And an April 2010 story directly explored the debate over how such killings should be regarded. The piece, entitled “Legal Questions Raised Over CIA Drone Strikes,” begins by asking: “Is the CIA’s secret program of drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen a case of illegal assassinations or legitimate self defense?” Although the reporter noted that “four law professors offered conflicting views,” she avoided backing any particular view.

So while the AP has recently asked whether the CIA’s counter-terror drone program involves assassinations or legitimate killings, it leaves it to readers to decide. When it comes Israel’s program, apparently there is no such debate. The wire service shoots first, and does not ask questions later.

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