The Fordham Observer’s Milquetoast Journalism Manifests Itself Perfectly in Story About Its Own Well-Being

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If you haven’t heard, The Fordham Observer, Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s only university-sanctioned undergraduate student newspaper for the past 35 years, is in trouble.

On April 21, the department of Communication and Media Studies announced to The Observer’s editorial board via an email from Jacqueline Reich, CMS’s chair, that it had decided to cease academic support to the paper effective May 21. CMS cancelled all the credit-bearing Observer-affiliated journalism workshops planned for the Fall 2016 semester, leaving the paper’s staff without advisors – typically CMS professors who have professional journalism experience – and without the opportunity to earn academic credit for Observer-related work.

While The Observer’s editorial board was notified of CMS’s decision, one constituency – arguably the most important – was not: its readers, who rely on the awardwinning paper for campus news. Deeming this news unnewsworthy, The Observer (for which I have written several times) failed to investigate or even file a report on the decision in its own right.

On June 25 – more than two months after CMS’s decision – the paper did, however, publish a simple write-up of the correspondence among concerned alumni, the CMS department and the dean of FCLC. The report, written by news co-editor Stephan Kozub, rather than investigating why CMS decided to cut ties with The Observer, instead focused on a letter sent to CMS signed by 115 Fordham alumni in support of The Observer.

Because this piece marked the first public acknowledgement by the paper of CMS’s decision, it’s likely that many readers were initially perplexed by the story’s headline, “Over 100 Alumni Sign Letter Supporting Observer.” What caused 100 alumni to send a letter in support of The Observer? Why hasn’t The Observer reported on the answer to the previous question? Readers soon find out in the article’s lead (emphasis added):

Over 100 alumni have signed and sent an alumni-written letter to the Communication and Media Studies (CMS) Department in support of The Fordham Observer following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication.

The clause in bold – “following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication” – should be the big news. But because The Observer had previously relegated this decision to the category of Better Left Unreported, it reduced the information to dependent clause status, a common tactic among corporate media outlets to downplay the significance of something. It’s a journalism phenomena colloquially referred to as beating around the bush: reporting on something in a roundabout way with the assumption that readers already know about what is indirectly being referred to. (A prime example, which I have written about before, is how The New York Times doesn’t report on most victories of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but rather tries to frame the momentum in the context of anti-Semitism and how Zionists on college campuses are “offended” and “traumatized” by criticisms of the Israeli government.) In this case, The Observer avoided reporting on an administrative decision that threatens its longstanding academic structure and instead issued a write-up about alumni reactions to that decision, amounting to a grave disservice to its readers.

It’s not until the second half of the fourth paragraph, following a quote from the alumni letter, when The Observer finally explains the implications of the CMS decision.

In cutting ties with The Observer, CMS has also decided to cancel all journalism workshops affiliated with the newspaper scheduled for the Fall 2016 semester, according to an April 21 email from Reich.

That information deserves a story of its own, one thoroughly and aggressively investigated.

The piece relies on quotes from an alumnus to condemn CMS’s decision:

“Since work for The Observer was done as part of academic courses and with the support of an experienced academic advisor with a background in journalism, student-journalists had a layer of protection between themselves and administrators who may want controversial stories reported a certain way or not reported at all,” Anthony Hazell, a member of the Fordham Observer Alumni Steering Committee, said. “With The Observer now being overseen solely by the administration, it puts students under the direct supervision of university staff who will be more inclined to advise against publishing articles that could be considered bad press for Fordham or that would not be a good fit with the university’s Catholic identity.”

The Observer’s choice to level an important critique of the decision using a quote from an alumnus – in The Observer’s classic pseudo-objective milquetoast style of journalism in which one side says X and the other side says Y and that’s the end of the story – reveals a hesitancy on the part of the paper’s editorial board to unequivocally condemn the decision. Although an editorial would have been more potent and more appropriate, The Observer took the safe route at the expense of its readers.

Regarding The Observer’s recent decisions, Ben Moore, editor-in-chief of The Observer, told me via email that the editorial board “decided that we would approach and report on the story from impartial angles, as it directly affects and actively involves our members.” Moore justifies his paper’s lack of initial reporting on the CMS decision by invoking the useful tenet of journalism that prevents journalists from improperly placing themselves at the center of the story. Although this journalistic practice usually serves a good purpose, sometimes reporters are the center of the story – most notably since the Obama administration has made it much more difficult for journalists to do their job by aggressively prosecuting their sources. CMS’s decision puts the entire Observer at the center of the story, so reporting it as such is responsible journalism. It is a journalist’s duty to hold those with most power accountable, even when – especially when – powerful people exercise their power in a way that harms journalists.

Moore offered a further justification: “We have received support from many different constituents of the Fordham community, many of whom are well-briefed about our current circumstance.” Although it was clear in The Observer’s report on the alumni letter, this defense amounts to an admission that the paper assumed readers knew about the CMS decision. Of course some members of the Fordham community know what had happened; that’s inevitable. But they deserved at least an early confirmation from The Observer itself. Before the several stories of government surveillance broke, many Americans suspected their emails and phone calls were being tracked. Using the assumption that readers already know about something to justify not reporting on it undermines the significance of a paper like The New York Times or The Guardian publishing a report confirming the existence of surveillance programs – and the many reforms implemented as a result of this reporting. Journalists who use this excuse degrade their own job and diminish their influence in political debate.

Yesterday Moore confirmed to me that The Observer is “currently investigating the CMS decision and will be publishing a comprehensive report.”

Readers deserve not only a comprehensive report of the CMS decision, but also a thorough explanation (read: apology) of The Observer‘s recent editorial decisions.

Q&A with Prof. Christina Greer on the Presidential Election


A condensed version of the following interview, conducted on April 6, was originally published at the Fordham Observer. Until I can afford to upgrade my website, unfortunately I am unable to upload the audio file of the interview.

Gunar Olsen: This is Gunar Olsen with the Fordham Observer, and I’m speaking with Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the American Dream. She appears regularly on MSNBC and NY1 to talk politics, and she’ll be on a panel about the election at Lucky Jack’s in the Lower East Side on April 14 ahead of the New York primary on the 19th.

Let’s start with the Democratic field. Compared to other Democratic primaries you’ve followed in your lifetime, where does this one stand in terms of substance, in terms of talking about actual issues, in terms of pursuing a progressive agenda?

Christina Greer: Goodness, that’s a loaded question. Well in the past I have to say, even in 2008, I can’t say the election was this exciting. If you all remember in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and of course John Edwards had to bow out – and we were essentially going state by state between Clinton and Obama, and there was sort of a different division obviously in how they wanted to get things done but not necessarily in what they wanted. Yes, there were conversations about war, whether or not Obama supported the war; he did not because he wasn’t even in the Senate at the time of the vote. And so that was sort of the biggest issue there.

This year it seems as though there’s a much larger core of ideas and how to implement them and some real divisions within the larger party about what the direction should be and what a Democratic candidate should look like. Should they be more centrist, like a Hillary Clinton, or should be in some ways, to use Bernie Sanders’ own terms, more radical? And there are many Democrats who don’t feel comfortable with the radical candidate just because they know that bipartisanship is the only way we’ve ever gotten anything done in American democracy, but others feel like this is the time. If not now, then when? She’s someone who’s not going to essentially look like a Republican half the time and really go for what Democratic ideals should be.

So we’re actually at more of a division than many people anticipated largely because many people did not anticipate Bernie Sanders even making the inroads that he has. He showed up, especially as a 74-year-old, pretty obscure senator from a small state. Most people have never heard of him before, and now we see he’s created a national movement in much the way Barack Obama did in 2008.

Gunar Olsen: One of the issues that has come up has been reparations. In an interview with Fusion in January, Bernie Sanders said he doesn’t support reparations for black people. His statement set off – what I found to be – a really important back on forth on the left about reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates quickly criticized Sanders. And then people further to the left pushed back on Coates: Cedric Johnson in Jacobin wrote “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him,” that got some good attention. Jacobin also ran a pro-reparations piece by Brian Jones. As usual, Adolph Reed said some things that were highly critical of Coates’ work. What did you make of this conversation?

Christina Greer: Well it depends on what you make of the conversation of reparations. I mean I think it’s an important conversation to have, but I think there are more important conversations to have about the institutions in which that money or those resources would be played out. What is the point of reparations in some ways if all the institutions will still be white owned and in some ways white supremacist? So I think that it’s an important question.

The fact that Bernie Sanders is entertaining the question says something about what he’s willing to do. I think a large frustration with people who aren’t supporting Sanders is that he never instigates any of these conversations. He’s always brought into the conversation often times reluctantly, and then he champions it, which is great, but he’s clearly not a leader on anything race related.

Gunar Olsen: One campaign tactic that Hillary Clinton has been using is the exploitation of identity politics, a type politics popular among social justice activists on college campuses, indeed especially here at Fordham. She’s been tweeting about intersectionality and recognizing her privilege. She’s using her gender to make the ‘elect a woman’ argument. Do you think these appeals are genuine? Do you think her policies will benefit the marginalized communities she’s claiming to help, or do you think, as Michelle Alexander wrote in the Nation, that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve the black vote?”

Christina Greer: Well I mean Hillary Clinton is a complicated figure largely because she’s been known for so long. I’m actually still uncertain as to what exactly she believes largely because people are allowed to change, but we also do know that this is something she definitely desires.

When it comes to the black vote, as I talk about in my book Black Ethnics, how can we really define that? Yes, there are large – 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratically in the general election, but that’s for complicated reasons. And the group is not a monolithic group, ethnically, geographically, financially, whatever it may be. Republicans have essentially written off black Americans, and so the choices are limited. But I think black people are very strategic voters, so when they’re looking at someone like Hillary Clinton, who in many ways is the presumed nominee, there’s a reason for many black voters to vote to protect their interests as opposed to take a gamble and vote for a possible candidate that might not make it.

You also can’t assume that just because one is black that they’re also liberal. So they may vote Democratically, but there’s still several conservative Democrats out there. If we think about southerners – not just black Southerners –  but southerners period, we know that a Democratic southerner from say Texas is more conservative than probably a Republican from New York City. So when we have these labels, we also have to recognize that these labels are multifaceted and pretty complex depending on our geographic space and who and what we’re talking about.

Gunar Olsen: Both Michelle Alexander and Shaun King at the New York Daily News said that the problem with Sanders is that he’s running in the Democratic Party, a party dominated by right-of-center neoliberals like Obama and Clinton. When asked whom she is supporting, Angela Davis said that we need a new party. What is your take on Sanders in the Democratic Party or a third-party run?

Christina Greer: I think what this race is really showing us is that the labels we are using are in many ways inaccurate. In the old days, Sanders would be a Democratic, Clinton would be a Republican, and then the Republicans would just be off the pond. We have no idea where they would be because they have shown themselves to be so extremist on the presidential level. Now obviously on the local level it’s a little bit different.

We know that Obama is not a liberal. Lots of people have been disappointed. Unfortunately they weren’t paying attention to anything he said in 2008 because if you were looking beyond his skin color, you would know for a fact that he never said he was going to be a liberal, he never said he would implement liberal policies. His skin color is liberal but that’s pretty much it. And he’s a centrist Democrat, and that’s, in the past, who we’ve tended to elect to be our president, centrist Democrats. So when it comes to the comparisons of the Obama era and today, we also have to be real about why and how we voted for Obama, and for some people, with the excitement of voting for Obama, they weren’t paying attention to some of the rhetoric that was quite clear that they weren’t paying attention.

Gunar Olsen: So what advice would you give to (1) the Sanders campaign to pick up more delegates in the remaining primaries and (2) the Clinton campaign to keep up her pledged delegate lead.

Christina Greer: Well the Sanders campaign so far they’re galvanizing young people and they would just have to keep stressing turn out and that this movement is real and not be discouraged even if the math doesn’t look in their favor. For many people, if Sanders is their first choice, they are making the argument for themselves, saying well, he probably won’t win, so I’ll just vote for my second choice and that’s what happens quite a bit. If he can convince people to vote for their first choice, I think he’s got great momentum.

Similarly though for Hillary Clinton, I think she needs to convince people that she needs to be judged as 21st century Hillary Clinton, and that even though she may have cosigned on her husband’s record, is it a fair assessment for her to be judged a) for things that she said 25 years ago – Biden said some pretty horrendous things, I’m sure if we all look back on ourselves, we aren’t the people we are today, hopefully we’re not, we’ve evolved – and really convince people that she’s the smartest person in the room, which I do think, you know, is usually the case. But lots of people have such a bad feeling about her, and she’s actually not a great candidate. And in governance, that may be a different story, but as far as on the campaign trail, she just doesn’t know how to bring it home. If she can convince people that she has the CV that no one else in the world has, and that we should trust her, even though we’ve known her for so many years, then I think she can make those inroads.

Gunar Olsen: Let’s move to the Republican field. How do you explain the violence inflicted by Trump supporters on nonviolent protesters, particularly black people, at his rallies? What does it signify and what does it say about the United States? Do you think it could get worse?

Christina Greer: Oh I definitely think it could get worse because it’s the fabric of this nation. We have a presidential candidate who’s essentially said, “We no longer have to live in the shadows.” And so the silent majority can now speak, and that means they can say pretty horrendous things about multiple people. These groups have been in existence, they’re not new, many of them though haven’t voted before or they reluctantly voted for a Democrat that didn’t satisfy their – or a Republican that didn’t satisfy their needs. And Trump is essentially saying, “It’s okay to say these inappropriate statements out loud, it’s acceptable because you’re with me now.” And I think a lot of people are feeling really relieved that he’s given them the permission to say and do things that they’ve felt for quite some time.

Gunar Olsen: So a question about the media. Glenn Greenwald wrote that the rise of Trump shows the danger and sham of compelled journalistic ‘neutrality.’ You were recently on a panel at the New School and you talked about the media’s role in the rise of Trump. What’s the connection?

Christina Greer: Well I think the media is complicit, and there are lots of people who disagree on this point. The fact is that he’s gotten $2 billion in free media since he announced. The only person who gets more free media is the president of the United States. So when journalists keep asking, “Why is Trump surging in the polls?” Well because you’ve been talking about him nonstop on air in a 24-hour news cycle, and so if you stopped doing that, we might see that maybe – it sort of depends on [inaudible] the dog. For a lot of people who weren’t paying attention or who didn’t think of him that seriously or they’ve heard every single journalist talking about him consistently, and so then they started to think about him more and more. And he’s already had a 10-year head start on many of the candidates because he’s a celebrity with his reality shows.

Gunar Olsen: What’s all this talk about a contested Republican convention? How could this play out?

Christina Greer: Oh I think it can play out, and if the Democrats aren’t careful, I think it will also play out in Philadelphia as well. So essentially there are lots of different rules in place. I mean I always tell my students, “The beauty and the curse of American democracy is that even though we have something written down, we always have a trap door where we can circumvent it.” So there are rules, the rules for Democrats are somewhat different than the rules for Republicans because Democrats have superdelegates. But Reublianas have to get to a certain number. If Cruz takes his win in Wisconsin and starts surging in the polls, we may see that neither Republican gets the requisite amount to actually win the nomination straight out at the convention. If that’s the case, it could be contested. That also means that Reince Priebus, who the head of the RNC, could exercise certain provisions in their bylaws where they could throw in a third candidate as well, someone obviously with the name like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney have been thrown around, someone who’s a little bit more palatable to the vast majority of Republicans in the party. Unfortunately in America, we have such low voter turnout for the primary, many times these people are not representative samples of the larger party.

Gunar Olsen: Currently the frontrunners in each party — Clinton and Trump — are very unpopular among the general electorate. In a recent CBS/NYT poll, 57 percent of voters said they have unfavorable views of Trump and 52 percent of Clinton, the highest numbers since the poll began in 1984. (This is in contrast to Sanders, who has 60 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable ratings in a CNN poll.) How is this happening? And how strong is the argument that Democrats should elect Sanders because he has a better chance of beating Trump?

Christina Greer: Right, and I don’t necessarily think that Sanders has a better chance of beating Trump. I think Sanders benefits in many ways from what Obama benefited from in 2008, which is that he’s relatively unknown. So yes he’s been in the Senate but his record in the Senate is not terribly impressive. And so there’s not much to stick to him based on what he’s done or hasn’t done because that a) wasn’t his office and b) he’s been living the great life of a senator and been delivering for the state of Vermont as he should as a senator.

With Hillary Clinton, she has a lot more net negative largely because we’ve known her for 25 years, she was secretary of State, she did cosign some of her husband’s most draconian policies in the 90’s, and even some upstate New Yorkers have issues with her from when she was senator obviously and voted for the Iraq War.

So both of these individuals, Clinton and Trump, have large negatives, but we also need to look at the number of people who are actually showing up. So if we think about Washington state, I believe Bernie Sanders got 19,000 votes and won the primary. When Obama won the Democratic state of Washington, he got 1.9 million votes, so we’re seeing a huge percentage of the Democratic primary not showing up for a primary because many people when they about elections, they think about November, they don’t think about early 2016.

Gunar Olsen: What worries you most about a Hillary Clinton presidency, and what worries you most about a Donald Trump presidency?

Christina Greer: A Hillary Clinton presidency, I worry that she’s a hawk. We see that Obama presented himself as a dove, and Hillary Clinton presented herself as a hawk in 2008. We see that Obama has a lot of hawk in him when it comes to foreign policy and also middle of the road policies when it comes to the welfare state and poor Americans. I think Hillary Clinton will be more hawkish than our current president, that does worry me because if obviously we think about interacting, intervening abroad, that does have real economic consequences domestically when it comes to education, infrastructure, and our day to day lives.

With Donald Trump, everything worries me because a) not only does he not have a record but I do think he has narcissistic, megalomania qualities and you can’t really take him at his word. So one day he’ll say he’s for something and the next day he’s against it and the third day he says he’s for it again. So I don’t feel comfortable with a person like that interacting with Putin or Kim Jong Un or our allies at the UN because tough talk and big talk in the boardroom is very different when you’re talking with heads of state where you can just call them pigs, and obviously his gender politics I think are probably the nadir of American politics and we probably haven’t seen someone so [inaudible] ever in our democratic history.

Gunar Olsen: So speaking of foreign policy, while Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to decline to speak at AIPAC, Clinton seemed like she was trying to position herself to the right of Donald Trump on Israel. Although Sanders reaffirmed his support for guaranteeing Israel’s survival, he did call for an end to the blockade of Gaza, criticized Israel for controlling water in the West Bank, and for mounting disproportionate responses to attacks. How does this affect his campaign? And more broadly, do you see Sanders’ speech as the beginning of a trend of national politicians who aren’t afraid to strongly criticize Israel?

CG: I don’t think it’s the beginning of a trend. I think that for people who are progressive in this country, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate not actually cater to this particular group, which Democrat and Republican candidates always cater to this specific group. So he is one in very few that I do not think are this national trend because many Democrats and Republicans alike believe that to get the support of AIPAC financially but even just on paper means a lot, not just in the campaign phase but also in the governance phase. Keep in mind the position of Israel in the Middle East is a very strategic position, and many world leaders want that relationship as strong as possible for all the things that we do in the dark.

Gunar Olsen: Since you teach a course on campaigns and elections, how would you design a primary system to either maximize or minimize the ability of an outsider candidate, like Trump or Sanders, to break through?

CG: I don’t think that democracy is set up to minimize people. I think if the public speaks then we should listen. My issue is that it’s only a small percentage of the public speaking. I really wish we could figure out a way to get more people involved, to actually turn out to vote. We know that there are costs to voting, not just $2.75 to take the subway to your polling station but trying to find childcare and healthcare and get off of work if you’re working two minimum wage jobs and you could lose your job if you leave early to go vote. So we really need to think about the strategies that other countries utilize that are really effective where they have weekend voting on a Saturday and a Sunday, or certain states where you can vote for two weeks or early voting or make it really easy to just mail in your ballot.

Some people argue that it shouldn’t be easy to vote, but we make it pretty difficult for people and it’s a pretty complex system. We’re a highly educated people, and I talk to my students all the time, and they’re even still confused about where they should register. Do they go online? Should they have to show up? There are a lot of intricate processes. They’re really confused about the date in New York: we’re voting in April for the presidential primary in June, for the congressional primary in September, for the state legislature primary, and then in November for the general election. Many people don’t understand what all these dates mean, and so it’s a larger education process that also needs to happen to explain to American voters what all these different levels and layers of American government really mean because they don’t really know who they’re turning out for. And part of the problem is that we have such an incumbency advantage for people who have already been in office. Many people aren’t inspired to turn out for someone who’s already been in office for 20 years and they just assume well they’re gonna be in office anyway and they essentially run pretty much unopposed every single time they’re up for office.

Gunar Olsen: Again, I’ve been speaking to Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics. She’ll be discussing the election at Lucky Jack’s on April 14th. We will link to your book and the panel at the Observer’s website. Thanks so much for chatting!

CG: Thank you, Gunar!

Fordham Students Condemn Revelations in the ‘Drone Papers’

Drone Papers

Originally published in the Fordham Observer.

In what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called the “most important national security story of the year,” The Intercept has published an eight-part exposé about the U.S. drone assassination program based on documents provided by a whistleblower within the intelligence community. The Drone Papers reveal the inner workings of President Obama’s covert kill/capture program between 2011 and 2013, a key window in the evolution of the drone wars.

Reporter Ryan Devereaux, in “Manhunting in the Hindu Kush,” part five of The Intercept’s investigation, describes Operation Haymaker, a campaign against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in northeastern Afghanistan. According to the documents, the term “jackpot” refers to an operation that kills its intended target, and anyone else killed in the airstrike is dubbed an “enemy killed in action” (EKIA) until proven otherwise. However, Article 50 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions states, “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”

Thomas H. Lee, Leitner Family Professor of International Law, considers this classification a possible violation of international law.“If a strike is on a military target in a military setting, and the bomber classifies everyone killed who is proximate to the target as ‘enemy combatant’ killed in action, does it violate the Law of War?  Arguably yes, under a strict reading of the Additional Protocol, which the United States did not ratify in large part because of concerns about issues just like this,” he said.

Ahmad Awad, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’17, a history major, called the government’s EKIA classification “very, very bizarre. It’s usually ‘you’re innocent until proven guilty.’ It’s not that you’re an enemy… If they don’t have substantial evidence to prove that it is a potential enemy of the United States and they’re just labeling people as enemies, that’s horrible. That’s not right. That should not be done for people who possibly are just innocent civilians in one of these nations that we are authorizing strikes in.”
Jeanelle Augustin, FCLC ’16, an anthropology major, agreed: “It sounds totally contrary to what we say our own justice model is here in America.”Sapphira Lurie, FCLC ’17, a comparative literature major, said, “The term ‘enemy killed in action’ had to be invented to imply that those murdered in drone strikes could even be considered a possible threat. So here, the terminology points towards the editorial authority used by imperialists to justify their attacks.”

One document, detailing the period between May and September 2012, reveals that there were 19 jackpots and 155 EKIAs, meaning that almost nine out of 10 people killed weren’t the intended targets. Just months before that, President Obama defended what he called “very precise, precision strikes,” stating that “actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”

“In any other context, that would be a failing grade,” Augustin said. Shady Azmy, FCLC ’19, a psychology major, agreed: “Those are terrible statistics.” “That makes me feel that this drone program that we are doing is not that effective. It’s not an accurate program… that’s a very high collateral damage compared to what they’re saying about low collateral damage. It’s the complete opposite of what they’re intending to do,” Awad said.

The “low collateral damage” that Awad referred to is another of the Drone Papers’ revelations. In a May 2013 speech about drone policy, President Obama said, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” before a strike is authorized. But one document, described by journalist Cora Currier in “The Kill Chain,” part three of the investigation, shows that the “near certainty” principle isn’t actually applied to civilians. Currier reports that there must be “near certainty” that the target is present – not that no civilians will be killed or injured – and a “low CDE [collateral damage estimate],” meaning a low chance of civilian death or injury.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been documenting this “collateral damage” for years, finding that between 159 and 261 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Yemen and between seven and 52 in Somalia since 2002.

Augustin said, “If we’re not sure that civilians may or may not die, it seems to me as though we would be committing terror to those civilian populations.” Alvarez offered a metaphor: “It sounds like a guess and check. That sounds like when I’m writing code, and when I screw up the code, I just have to do it again.” And Awad asked, “What do they consider a low collateral damage estimate? How many innocent lives are lost?”

That same document, which reveals the administration’s two-step process for creating and acting on its kill list, shows that once President Obama approved a target to be killed, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had at the time (and may still have) a 60-day window for lethal action in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 and 2012. The administration has nonetheless defended the drone program as a means to prevent “imminent threats” to the United States.

Awad said, “I don’t know how imminent the threat can be if they’re given a 60 day window. I think that an imminent threat would be one that we have substantial evidence to prove that he or she is within a short period of time, has the capability of either attacking the U.S. mainland or attacking a U.S. embassy, or that American civilians are at stake.” Daniel Alvarez, FCLC ’19, a philosophy major agreed: “I feel like that’s way too much time.”

While a 60-day authorization window may seem to Awad and Alvarez an unreasonably long period of time, Lee said it may not violate international law: “The proportionality/tailoring aspects of international law of war are very nebulous, but two months, as opposed to two years, seems okay unless it straddles a peace event that can reasonably be viewed as a material change in the circumstances.”

In the documents obtained by The Intercept, there’s a bevy of corporate language used to describe aspects of the assassination program: the “tyranny of distance,” a reference to the great lengths drones must fly from their bases to targeted countries; “baseball card,” a reference to a slide of information about a candidate for assassination that is presented to members of the chain of command; a slide titled “Manhunting Basics”; “Arab features” to describe someone being targeted; “Find, Fix, Finish,” JSOC’s assassination doctrine; and of course jackpot and EKIA.

Augustin called this language “definitely a mechanism to dehumanize people.” Awad said he was “shocked” by these terms. “It kind of makes it seem that this is a game, and it’s a hunting game,” he said.

The documents are also a further confirmation of CIA Director and former counterterrorism adviser John Brennan’s, FCRH ’77, role in the drone program, specifically his top role in deciding whom should be killed, portrayed in an illustration (pictured below) by The Intercept‘s Josh Begley. Fordham University awarded Brennan an honorary degree in 2012 and rejected a petition to revoke that degree this past May.


Chain of Command



Cuba Off Terrorism List, Germany and U.S. Drones, War in Yemen

Originally published at the Fordham Observer‘s “Going Global” column.

U.S to Remove Cuba From Terror Sponsors List

In his continued effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama has made an official recommendation to Congress that Cuba be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move will leave only Iran, Sudan and Syria on the list. Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 when its government was supporting liberation struggles across the region. It will not be officially removed from the list until after a 45-day review period, during which Congress could form a joint resolution to block its removal. The Cuban government called Obama’s move “just” and said it should never have been on the listThe U.S. trade embargo with Cuba remains in effect. “President Obama has acknowledged publicly and with actions something that has been obvious for a very long time: US policy towards Cuba has been frozen for way too many years and hasn’t done a thing to achieve its stated goals. It’s time to try a more enlightened approach,” Hector Lindo-Fuentes, associate chair and professor of history, said.

Germany is heart of U.S. drone program

A top-secret document obtained by the news website, The Intercept, confirms that the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, is the main technology center for America’s drone program. Drone operators in the American Southwest use Ramstein as a satellite relay station to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other targeted countries. Although Ramstein’s role in the drone program has been downplayed, an unidentified source told The Intercept, “Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now.” A German court has agreed to hear a case brought by a relative of two Yemeni victims of a U.S. drone strike for Germany’s role in the drone program. This is globally unprecedented as no court anywhere, including in the U.S., has ever agreed to grant standing to a relative of a drone strike victim. “Perhaps the court would be willing to issue an injunction prohibiting the use of Ramstein for its role in drone strikes if it finds this role essential,” Thomas H. Lee, Leitner Family professor of International Law, said. “All of this just adds to the controversies about the drone program – the United States has still not officially recognized civilian deaths as collateral damage.”

War in Yemen

Over 1,000 people have died in the fighting in Yemen since late March. With intelligence and logistical support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and nine regional allies began bombing Houthis on March 25. The Houthis, a Shiite minority, took over the capital Sana’a in January and forced the resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has since fled to Saudi Arabia. President Obama has long defended the “successful” counterterrorism model with the Yemeni government in its fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has begun to gain control of more territory during the power vacuum created by the Houthis’ takeover and the Saudi Arabian military campaign. “No outside power can resolve what is, at heart, a struggle for national identity in a country seriously divided along religious, tribal, and ideological lines […] You can’t bomb a country into the 21st century nor rearrange its political architecture through external interference,” John P. Entelis, professor and chair of Political Science and director of Middle East Studies, said.

Nigerian Election, Palestine Joins ICC, Sanctions on Venezuela

Originally published at the Fordham Observer‘s “Going Global” column.

The Observer is launching an international column to update students on global events with expert commentary from professors. Tweet us what you think @fordhamobserver.

Nigerian Presidential Election

Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, unseating President Goodluck Jonathan by 2.7 million votes. One of Nigeria’s military rulers, Buhari, 72, first came to power in a military coup in 1984. Many voters were drawn to his hard-handedness in a country marked by corruption and an Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram, both targets of much of Buhari’s aggressive rhetoric. “If he acts on his military approach to end the insurgency, Nigeria will plunge into violence and political instability. There is no military solution to Boko Haram. Buhari must address the socio-economic causes of the insurgency to advance democratic values and foster economic development,” Amir H. Idris, professor and chair of African and African American Studies, said.

Palestine Becomes Member of ICC

As of April 1, Palestine has become an official member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In January, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acceded to the 1998 Rome Statute, which created the court, after the United States and Israel blocked a U.N. Security Council measure calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestine has given the ICC jurisdiction over incidents beginning in June 2014, a month before Israel launched its 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip killing more than 2,200 Palestinians, including nearly 1,500 civilians, opening the door to prosecute Israeli war crimes. Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, opened a preliminary examination in January. The Israeli military is conducting several already in an attempt to stymie external efforts to hold the military accountable for war crimes. “[Palestinian ICC membership] could mean prosecution not only of Israelis, but also Palestinians – including groups like Hamas. As the ICC’s preliminary examinations typically last months or years, it may be a whole year before we see how the ICC will proceed,” Karen Corrie, adjunct professor of political science and former trial lawyer for the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC, said.

Obama Imposes Sanctions on Venezuelan Leaders

In March, the White House imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan senior officials, citing human rights violations and corruption. As a legal requirement to justify the sanctions, President Obama declared Venezuela “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security,” but has since rescinded this classification. 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries issued support for President Nicolás Maduro and rejected the US sanctions, claiming they are a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and aren’t actually about human rights given U.S. support of repressive regimes across the world and its long-time attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in Venezuela. “Regardless of what one can think of the wisdom of Maduro’s policies, it is hard to see how Venezuela — a country in the middle of a deep economic crisis, high inflation and high crime rates — can represent such a threat to the most powerful country in the world,” Hector Lindo-Fuentes, professor and associate chair of history, said.

Islamophobia Following Paris Attacks: Defending Only Favorable Speech Is Not a Defense of Free Speech

Originally published at the Fordham Observer

Following the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, large numbers of Westerners have been emphatically defending the right to free speech. Though it’s refreshing to see free speech rights at the top of our political discourse, this instance deserves scrutiny. It seems that only when favorable speech is attacked do people turn out en masse to defend free speech. Westerners have rallied for Charlie Hebdo not on free speech grounds, but rather because they approve of the content.

Days after the attacks, nearly four million people, including more than 40 world leaders, rallied across France in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. These world leaders don’t actually support the right to free speech, waging their own wars on journalists and political dissidents. As Daniel Wickham tweeted, among the marchers were U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who forced The Guardian to destroy hard drives that stored the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; Attorney General Eric Holder of the U.S., where several journalists have been arrested in Ferguson and where the Obama justice department has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all prior administrations combined; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose military forces killed seven journalists in last summer’s assault on Gaza; King Abdullah of Jordan (whom Jon Stewart likes to joke around with on his show), which sentenced a Palestinian journalist to 15 years in prison with hard labor for “attacking Jordan’s image”; Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, whose country imprisons the most journalists in the world;  Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukryto of Egypt, which in 2014 sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to at least seven years in prison;  Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, where “blasphemy” is a crime; and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who had a journalist arrested for insulting him in 2013. You’ll never see four million people marching to defend these restrictions on free speech.

The largest free speech hypocrite following the attacks is the French government itself. From the Patriot Act in the U.S. to Bill C-44 in Canada, Western governments always devise ways to curtail civil liberties following any (Islamic) “terrorist” attack. France is no different. Days after the attack, the France government increased electronic surveillance, staged 10,000 troops to protect “sensitive sites,” and deployed nearly 5,000 police officers to defend the country’s 700 Jewish schools. Meanwhile, several mosques in France were attacked with grenades. Following the free speech march, the French government has arrested at least 54 people, including controversial anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, for “defending terrorism.”

The French government takes the increasing tide of anti-Semitism very seriously, but doesn’t do the same for Islamophobia. While declaring in response to the attacks that “France without Jews is not France,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls refuses to use the term “Islamophobia.” By selectively protecting one targeted community and disregarding bigotry against another, France is telling its Muslim population that they aren’t as important.

Several journalists jumped to stand (and publish the blasphemous cartoons) in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Weisberg, Slate‘s editor-in-chief, tweeted, “Best response to #CharlieHebdo attack — other than catching and punishing killers — is to escalate blasphemous satire.” Though Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out that one should simply not publish racist cartoons, he also wrote, “To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one.” In an op-ed entitled, “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat wrote, “that [that which causes others to violently retaliate] kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” Most egregiously, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait argued, “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” Because these writers rarely jump to defend speech that criticizes or degrades non-Muslims, it’s clear that the type of speech these writers are referring to is anti-Islam speech.

This is not the right response. Many were quick to point out the anti-Islam, racist, and homophobic nature of Hebdo‘s cartoons, including one that depicted Boko Haram’s sex slaves as welfare queens. Others simply made fun of Muslims generally. These racist cartoons make clear that Hebdo‘s white staff was trying to further marginalize Muslims in France. Charb, the magazine’s murdered editor, even told the AP in 2012, “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” Jacob Canfield rightly called it the “edgy-white-guy mentality… nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship” — otherwise known as the French version of the Bill Maher/Sam Harris complex.

Just because I have the right publish racist cartoons doesn’t mean I’m going to. It’s a right I choose not to exercise. I can defend another’s right to publish racist ideas while simultaneously condemning them — just as the ACLU defends the right of neo-Nazis to march through a town filled with Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois while at the same time condemning their ideas.

Though it’s featured cartoons making fun of Christianity and Judaism, Charlie Hebdo is not an “equal opportunity offender” as some have suggested. In 2009, Hebdo fired Sine, one of its cartoonists, for writing what some called an anti-Semitic sentence. Sine later won a judgment against the magazine on the basis of unfair termination. Like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, Islam is the most frequent target of their bigotry. Rarely ever do they mock Judaism or Israel. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome.”

Even more dangerous is when writers or cartoonists self-censor themselves for fear of legal or economic repercussions, as we’ve witnessed academics like Steven Salaita face. In an article that featured both “blasphemous and otherwise offensive cartoons [and] not-remotely-blasphemous-or-bigoted yet very pointed and relevant cartoons,” Greenwald wrote:

When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least.

Hebdo‘s white staff doesn’t have to deal with this when their target is Islam. The content of their cartoons are deemed favorable by Westerners.

The discourse on free speech since the Hebdo shooting has made one thing clear about most Westerners “defending” free speech: to defend free speech, one must approve of the speech. The only speech to be protected is that which degrades unfavored groups (Muslims) while rendering free from criticism or prosecution any speech that does the same to favored groups (Christians, Jews) in the guise of liberal principles. Society, however, should not be judged on how it treats its favored groups; society should be judged, rather, on how it treats its most marginalized, oppressed groups. Until the bastions of free speech start defending speech which Western society finds most repellent and government finds most dangerous to itself, their selective application of free speech principles isn’t helping anyone.

The Solution to ISIS Is Not Military Action

Source: The Intercept

Source: The Intercept

Originally published at the Fordham Observer.

“Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over,” President Obama announced to troops at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina on December 14, 2011, one day before the official end to the eight-year-long Operation Iraqi Freedom. I wish those words still held true. But, nearly three years later, President Obama became the fourth consecutive president to authorize military action in Iraq. Welcome to 16 years of George W. Bush foreign policy.

Whenever the United States bombs a Muslim country, it’s justified as “humanitarian intervention” (“to liberate the women!“). And President Obama can easily sell this propaganda to his liberal base. But bombing for “humanitarian” ends never actually helps anyone or defeats an enemy. We can’t just bomb our way to peace. Terrorist organizations use bombing to recruit more terrorists. When we order drone strikes on wedding ceremonies in Yemen to “kill terrorists,” when we detain Muslims at Guantanamo Bay without charging them with a crime (600 of the 779 were released without charges, many after being held for years), when we kill actual U.S. citizens without charging them with a crime, we’re actually creating more terrorists – the principle of blowback. Terrorists become terrorists because we are terrorists.

Source: University of Maryland / Zogby International

Source: University of Maryland / Zogby International

Also, has anyone considered that maybe we don’t actually care about solving “humanitarian” crises in the Middle East, considering that the U.S. government doesn’t oppose the violent subjugation of populations there? Example A: Israel. One thing that every elected official publicly agrees on is continued support for the apartheid state of Israel and its war crimes. Example B: Egypt. Not only did Hillary Clinton say, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” but also the United States has continued to militarily and economically support the dictators of Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster. Example C: Saudi Arabia. According to a secret National Security Agency (NSA) memo published by Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, the United States “has an interest in regime continuity” in the brutally repressive government of Saudi Arabia. With our history of supporting tyranny and oppression, why would anyone believe the propaganda about “humanitarian” goals in the region?

Let’s remember another fact: ISIS exists because of us. When a top State Department official said to House and Senate lawmakers in July that ISIS is “worse than al-Qaeda,” did he consider why? It’s because of the nearly nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq and, more largely, the Global War on Terrorism. At the time of 9/11, terrorist organizations (including al-Qaeda) were small and unorganized. Today they are powerful. During the occupation of Iraq, we destroyed its infrastructure, government, and military. These newly unemployed Saddam-era soldiers joined insurgent militias – eventually forming a coalition that has become ISIS. (Before ISIS was ISIS, it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq.) The United States also supported and installed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister in 2006, who ruled along strict Shia sectarian lines, squashed dissent, and thus convinced many Sunnis that their only hope was in the form of a military: ISIS. Moreover, when ISIS members were fighting a civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United States gave them weapons because it opposed the Assad regime. Sounds a lot like when we trained and armed Osama bin Laden and the Afghani mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

No one doubts that ISIS is reprehensible. So what can we do? A lot, actually, according to Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Call for an arms embargo on all sides. Work with Iran to put pressure on the Iraqi government to end sectarianism and human rights violations. Use the United Nations and Russian to help bring about a peaceful end to the civil war in Syria. Lastly, of course, increase non-lethal humanitarian aid to refuges across the region.

The end goal is to stop all wars – not create more of them. The only way to do that is to take all military action off the table. President Obama did indeed speak truth in that same speech at Fort Bragg when he said, “It’s harder to end a war than to begin one.” We must end our role as, in the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly one year before he was assassinated, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.