The New York Times’ terrible anonymous sourcing

This is what is wrong with anonymous sourcing. It can be great for sensitive stories in which going on the record would justify someone’s career and when there is no other way to get the information. But this work, by Gerry Mullany and Scott Shane at The New York Times, is just fancily stated hearsay. In a piece about the ongoing Edward Snowden case, they add this:

For the past week, Mr. Snowden, 30, appears to have been staying in an apartment in Hong Kong’s Western District that is controlled by the Hong Kong government’s security branch, according to a person who has followed the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Emphasis mine. That could be virtually anyone who watches the news and called the New York Times to spout off. Presumably, the Times has reason to believe this source, and there’s a good chance they’re right. But the paper is asking for a lot of trust from its readers if they want us to believe that, and if they turn out wrong they’ve gone out on a limb for very little substance.

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Hunger strike at Guantanamo

 

From NPR: Medics Arrive At Guantanamo As Hunger Strikers Increase

About 40 medical personnel have arrived at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay amid an increase in the number of hunger strikers at the facility.

Since last Saturday, 100 of the 166 prisoners at the camp have been refusing to eat; 21 of them are being fed through nasal tubes.

As the strike gains international media attention, President Barack Obama is reportedly renewing the efforts of his failed 2009 executive order (PDF) to have the prison camp closed by early 2010.

From the New York Times: Amid Hunger Strike, Obama Renews Push to Close Cuba Prison

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, makes no sense. “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

 

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Some of the best Boston Marathon and Watertown Manhunt coverage

While the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the week of confusion that followed spawned some of the worst journalism in recent memory, it also gave some very talented journalists and writers an opportunity to shine.

Here is a roundup of some of the best stories, chosen by readers and myself, about the week’s events:

In an instant, a perfect day had morphed into something viscerally evil.

The location and timing of the bombs was sinister beyond belief, done purposely to maximize death and destruction. Among those who watched in horror as a fireball belched out across the sidewalk on Boylston were the parents of the schoolkids murdered in Newtown, Conn. The ­Atlantic reported they were sitting in a VIP section at the finish line, across the street from the explosion.

One nurse told me she remembered EMTs running out to the site of the explosion the moment the bombs burst. “They were off before I could blink,” she said. Many physicians followed. “After I saw a guy in a wheelchair coming into the tent with a head wound,” Rouzier said, “I decided to go to the scene.” He texted his wife what might be a good-bye message: There’s a bomb at the finish line and we have to help. “I didn’t want to die,” he said, “but there were people out there.”

Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them. When ball bearings and nails were found in the wounds of the victims, everyone understood the bombs had been packed with them as projectiles. At every hospital, clinicians considered the possibility of chemical or radiation contamination, a second wave of attacks, or a direct attack on a hospital. Even nonmedical friends e-mailed and texted me to warn people about secondary and tertiary explosive devices aimed at responders. Everyone’s imaginations have come to encompass these once unimaginable events.

  •  4:09:43, Interactive Graphic, The New York Times

One week ago — at approximately 2:50 p.m. on Monday, just over four hours into the race — the first of two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This image, taken from the NBC broadcast of the race, shows the flash of the explosion and the final split-second of normalcy before the area turned into what witnesses described as a war zone. Here are the stories of the runners and spectators seen in this image.

The story of how Boston resident Carlos Arredondo helped save the life of a man severely wounded in the Marathon bombings began nearly nine years ago.

Arredondo, now known worldwide as the man in a cowboy hat photographed wheeling an injured bombing victim on April 15, saw his life change dramatically — on his 44th birthday, Aug. 25, 2004. On that day, Marine officers in a government van arrived at the driveway of his home in Florida.

“He woke up under so much drugs, asked for a paper and pen and wrote, ‘bag, saw the guy, looked right at me,’” Chris Bauman said yesterday in an interview.

The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times. The goal was to construct a timeline of images, following possible suspects as they moved along the sidewalks, building a narrative out of a random jumble of pictures from thousands of different phones and cameras.

“We were off scene and at the hospital in three minutes,” he said. “Overall we might have got the call, picked up Donohue and arrived at the hospital in eight minutes. I didn’t find out my brother was the one driving until we got to the hospital.”

It was over. The jubilation began to spread. A slow procession of emergency vehicles made their way through a gauntlet formed by the growing crowd. The ambulances, the cop cars, even the Watertown utility truck whose giant flood lights had illuminated Tsarnaev’s final hiding place were ushered through with grateful cheers. “You can set us back, but you can’t knock us down!” screamed the man in the sleeveless T-shirt.

Disclosure: Jeff Howe, who wrote “Captured in Watertown,” is a professor at Northeastern University who I work with on some stories. I didn’t participate in any aspect of the reporting, writing or editing of “Captured in Watertown.”

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PHOTOS: Confusion at the Boston Marathon

At least two people were killed and more than 20 were injured today in a pair of explosions near the finish line for the Boston Marathon. The area was dense with spectators and the runners who had finished the race. I heard the crowd’s cheers of encouragement from my apartment blocks away. There were two loud booming noises and I saw on Twitter that there had been some sort of explosion near the finish line, so I grabbed my camera and ran out the door.

UPDATE: You can find more of my photos, as well as an essay (of sorts) about the day at Medium.

A runner left the scene crying as scores of police officers ran toward the finish line.

A runner left the scene crying as scores of police officers ran toward the finish line.

Boston Police answered questions as they moved crowds away from the scene.

Boston Police answered questions as they moved crowds away from the scene.

A spectator runs away from the scene of the explosions along the marathon route.

A spectator ran away from the scene of the explosions along the marathon route.

An SUV with U.S. Government plates and a roof-mounted satellite arrives at the scene. It was waved through toward the marathon finish line.

An SUV with U.S. Government plates and a roof-mounted satellite arrived at the scene. It was waved through toward the marathon finish line.

One of the first ambulances moves down Boylston Street toward the finish line.

One of the first ambulances moved down Boylston Street toward the finish line.

Hundreds of runners were stopped on Commonwealth Avenue, just short of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge.

Hundreds of runners were stopped on Commonwealth Avenue, just short of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge.

A runner who was stopped before she could finish the marathon reunites with loved ones on Commonwealth Ave.

A runner who was stopped before she could finish the marathon reunited with loved ones on Commonwealth Ave.

A Boston Police officer maintaining a security perimeter around the blast site.

A Boston Police officer maintained a security perimeter around the blast site.

A family reunites with a runner after the explosion.

A family reunited with a runner after the explosion.

Leonardo Medina applauds as the runners who were unable to finish before the race's supension pass along the marathon route after about an hour of waiting. They were never allowed to finish.

Leonardo Medina applauded as the runners who were unable to finish before the race’s suspension walked and jogged along the marathon route after about an hour of waiting. They were never allowed to finish.

Metro SWAT officers maintain a security perimeter around a group of about 100 members of the National Guard.

Metro SWAT officers maintained a security perimeter around a group of about 100 members of the National Guard.

A group of Metro SWAT officers gather for a briefing in Boston Common.

A group of Metro SWAT officers gathered for a briefing in Boston Common.

A person who appears to be handcuffed is watched over by Boston Police officers on Boston Common.

A person who appeared to be handcuffed was watched over by Boston Police officers on Boston Common.

A member of the Metro SWAT team on Charles Street between Boston Common and Boston Gardens.

A member of the Metro SWAT team on Charles Street between Boston Common and Boston Gardens.

Agents from the Department of Homeland Security were dispatched and could be seen on Commonwealth Ave.

Agents from the Department of Homeland Security were dispatched and could be seen on Commonwealth Ave.

A law enforcement officer responds to questions.

A law enforcement officer responded to questions.

A law enforcement officer on Charles Street near Boston Common.

A law enforcement officer on Charles Street near Boston Common.

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Google exec. says no to private drones

A new technology, developed for government use, with still-unknown potential uses for the gathering and distribution of information and things should be strictly regulated and kept out of the hands of private citizens, said the guy who helped change the world with a new technology, developed for government use, with still-unknown potential uses for the gathering and distribution of information and things.

In an interview with James Ball of The Guardian, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt said he doesn’t think privately-owned drones should be allowed, and there should be an international treaty to that effect.

“You’re having a dispute with your neighbour,” he hypothesised. “How would you feel if your neighbour went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard. It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?”

Schmidt set out the trajectory of robotic warfare and considered whether it would be confined solely to national governments. “It’s probable that robotics becomes a significant component of nation state warfare,” he said.

“I’m not going to pass judgment on whether armies should exist, but I would prefer to not spread and democratise the ability to fight war to every single human being.

Laying aside the blatant irony of a Google executive warning about the dangers of other people having too much access to private information (which The Guardian, to their great credit, raised with him), Schmidt seems to have an extremely narrow view of what Unmanned Aerial Systems can be used for.

“It’s got to be regulated. … It’s one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they’re doing, but have other people doing it … It’s not going to happen,” Schmidt said. Like many of his comments on the subject, this sounds like a compelling argument for gun control, but it’s a stretch to apply this to drones.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator. USAF Photo via Flickr.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator. USAF Photo via Flickr.

Schmidt seems to have a fairly limited view of what drones are. The word has become near-synonymous with the military’s fixed-wing craft which are used for surveillance and targeted missile strikes abroad.

Other uses of remotely-piloted aircraft could be as revolutionary in their fields as the Predator-style drone has been for asymmetrical warfare, though. The problem, Schmidt points out, is that these fields could include invasion of privacy, stalking, harassment, and – in some dystopian view of the future – citizen warfare.

It’d be hard to make a sound argument against any regulations against flying robots operating around private homes and public airports, but to take them out of the hands of private citizens as Schmidt suggests would deal a great blow to the world’s ability to innovate. From medicine delivery in Africa to taco delivery in the San Francisco bay area to crop spraying, unmanned aircraft, multiple industry experts have told me, have the potential to be the “next big thing.”

And Schmidt, who works at the top of Google, which was created when two enterprising entrepreneurs thought of a new way to use the internet – originally created for the Department of Defense – should see that.

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Legal files vanishing, more delayed justice in Guantanamo

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

A soldier in a guard tower at Guantanamo. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

Guantanamo has been struck by another controversy this week after files belonging to defense attorneys for two high-profile terror suspects began to disappear from their computers.

Last month, it came out that smoke detectors installed in some of the rooms where suspects met with their attorneys were detecting more than smoke. Now, according to a Reuters report, it seems someone has been snooping around the defense’s computers.

Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents 9/11 defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, said “three to four weeks’ worth of work is gone, vanished.”

But some new files of suspicious origin also mysteriously appeared.

He said what appeared to be a computer folder of prosecution files had turned up on the defense lawyers’ system, though none of them had opened the files.

The odd computer behavior led a judge to push week-long terror hearings scheduled this month back into June. The judge also ordered attorneys on both sides to stop using their government-issued computers.

It wasn’t clear based on the Reuters report if there is an investigation into the matter. The string of suspicious-at-best developments in Guantanamo trials is unsettling, to say the least. It seems odd that someone – presumably within the U.S. government and with access to the facilities – would be jeopardizing the integrity of such a vital trial.

If the defendants are in fact guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, those meddling with the process in their cases are only serving to damage the integrity of any outcome. If anything, all of the controversies around the case are only increasing the chances a guilty man walks free, not to mention turning public opinion against the trials.

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Loss of drone program a momentum shift for the CIA

The Daily Beast reports that the CIA’s drone operations are being shifted to military control. That doesn’t so much mean the CIA is losing the ability to launch strikes with the remotely piloted aircraft, but that they will have to liase with the Pentagon to do so.

The move is reportedly part of a larger shift in the administration to reign in and centralize the nation’s ability to launch targeted strikes across the globe.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it.

 Cutting back on the CIA’s lethal operations is a shift in an agency culture that has, in the years since 9/11, seemed to be increasingly paramilitary in nature. Ironically, the newly-appointed director of the CIA, John Brennan, was historically the mastermind of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy – a policy that relied heavily on drones.

After the approval process for Brennan’s job as CIA director was rife with Congressional complaints about the lacking transparency of the administration’s use of drones, the executive branch seems to have received the message. With all American drone use coming out of the Pentagon, which falls under military and international law, the process for each strike will be uniform, if not more transparent.

The CIA, for its part, seems to be headed back into the shadows, serving as more of an ear and less of a fist for the American national security apparatus.

Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

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U.S. Army researching hacker drones

The U.S. Army is soliciting input from the private sector for a new class of attack drone – one that does its damage with an antennae instead of Hellfire missiles.

The Army’s Request for Information, posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, says they’re hoping to learn “what systems, capabilities and techniques currently exist, or could be modified, to provide UAS-based EW capabilities to include potential surgical/targeted EW techniques (with emphasis on successful completion of an Airborne Electronic Attack mission).”

It’s unclear from the RFI what types of targets such an aircraft would be used against, but here are two likely guesses.

First, as Iran rolls out its own, domestically-operated version of the internet, outsiders will likely find it more and more difficult to penetrate that country’s networks. After Stuxnet made Iran aware of their vulnerability to more standard forms of electronic attack (i.e. USB thumb drives), the U.S. may be working on a more creative method of hacking their networks. Such an attack would, no doubt, be chock-full of irony, as Iran has previously claimed they were able to bring down an American Sentinel drone by taking over its controls.

The more recent headlines about electronic warfare have had nothing to do with Iran, though. After the New York Times exposed a widespread hacking campaign based in China which included major network infiltrations within both American media and infrastructure-related companies, the U.S. might be beefing up its electronic warfare suite for a showdown with the Chinese.

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Did the Air Force violate Freedom of Information law when it took down drone strike reports?

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Photo via Flickr.

The AirForce Times reported Friday that the U.S. Air Force has stopped publishing data on weapons releases from Remotely Piloted Aircraft – i.e. drone strikes – in their monthly activity reports on Afghanistan operations.

Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.

Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.

In other words, not only did the Air Force stop publishing their numbers on drone strikes, but they actively removed that data from previously published reports. The information is no longer available to the public, and the military made a distinct effort to remove it from the public domain. But under federal laws, there are very clear rules around what information can be public and what can be private.

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect July 5, 1967, information held by the government has been publicly available by default. As the FOIA website puts it:

Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.

The Department of Defense, on their FOIA page, lays out the nine exemptions. Essentially, information that is exempt from public disclosure must be classified, pose a threat to national or operational security or invade the personal privacy of personnel, among other things. The law is very specific on these points, as they are the only reasons for which the government can withhold information from its people.

Granted, not all government information is readily accessible or published. The point of this law is not to burden agencies with the task of publicizing every action they take, but it is to make it possible for citizens to get information about their government, enhancing transparency and accountability. So while public officials don’t need to post their every action online, they are obligated to provide information when it is requested of them unless it falls under a specific exemption. Government information is public by default.

So when the Air Force took down the data on drone strikes and said – as the Air Force Times reports – “the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” it was removing data from the public record because it didn’t look good, not because it was exempt from release. The full statement seems to suggest the data was misleading because it reported only instances in which a drone used weapons and not the far more common instances in which drones were used only for surveillance.

“A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” CENTCOM said in the statement. “A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events.”

The Air Force could have added the total monthly number of RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] sorties [missions] to their report, which would have brought the number of kinetic events [drone strikes] into proportion with the total drone activity in Afghanistan. Perhaps then the public would be able to see that while these aircraft are doing damage and taking lives, they are also doing a lot of work collecting intelligence that benefits – and perhaps saves the lives of – troops on the ground. This would have addressed the Air Force’s concern that the data was disproportionately focused on offensive strikes and at the same time increased the transparency of the operations.

Instead, the Air Force omitted the number from their reporting and then went back into their old reports and stripped the already public numbers from there too, despite the fact that the information clearly was not protected under any of the FOIA exemptions. It is possible that the Air Force would release those numbers again in the face of a FOIA request, but the fact that they made the effort to actively remove already available data from the public domain seems to me a violation of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, if not its letter.

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Feds investigating UAV incident over New York

A Boeing 777-200, the same model of plane involved in the incident over New York.

A Boeing 777-200, the same model of plane involved in the incident over New York.

Federal authorities are investigating what could have been one of the first midair collisions between a manned aircraft and an unmanned “drone” over American soil. At around 1:15 p.m. today, the pilot of Alitalia flight 608 from Rome, Italy to John F. Kennedy airport in New York reported seeing a black, unmanned quadrocopter at an altitude of about 1,750 feet, according to the FBI, which is seeking public help to locate the vehicle’s operator.

The FBI report says the vehicle was about three miles from JFK’s runway, which puts it about a mile north of the western tip of Long Beach Island.

“The unnamed aircraft was described as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers,” the FBI said in a release about the incident. Such quadrocopters are popular among hobbyists for their stability and maneuverability, but according to a Reuters report (which described the incident as taking place at a slightly lower altitude farther from the airport),

Under FAA safe operating rules, model aircraft should be flown no higher than 400 feet above ground and no closer to an airport than 3 miles, unless airport authorities have been notified.

The Reuters report quoted FAA spokesman Jim Peters as saying the pilot was able to land the Boeing safely without having to take evasive action.

Drone use over the U.S. has been a contentious issue of late – lawmakers have mandated a makeover in FAA regulations for the aircraft, but FAA brass and some state and local officials have privacy concerns about such use. The FAA is behind schedule on their mandated timeline for drone integration, which would install a regulatory structure around the use of unmanned aircraft over 400 feet and for commercial purposes.

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