Among journalists, there is a long-running debate about when it is appropriate to grant anonymity to a source. I’ve never been a restrictionist. There are all sorts of circumstances where I think that protecting a source’s identity is appropriate and desirable.
But articles on this airstrike are a textbook example of anonymity wrongly granted. Consider an otherwise excellent New York Times article on the incident that ran Sunday.
A key paragraph stated:
A senior American military official said Sunday that there was heavy gunfire in the area around the hospital at the time of the airstrike, and that initial reports indicated that the Americans and Afghans on the ground near the hospital could not safely pull back without being dangerously exposed. American forces on the ground then called for air support, senior officials said.
Those anonymous officials aren’t undercutting the official narrative in a way that serves the truth but risks their careers. They are offering what appears to be an officially sanctioned explanation, and is at the very least an explanation that reflects well on government and military officials: It asserts that the strike was a necessity that targeted Taliban fighters to protect U.S. troops from clear, present, lethal danger.
What’s more, government sources have a powerful incentive to tell a story like that, whether or not it is true: intentionally targeting a hospital would likely be a war crime, and would, at the very least, be considered a shameful public relations disaster.
The very weakest case for withholding a source’s name is when 1) powerful officials 2) with a clear incentive to lie 3) use anonymity to spread a self-serving narrative 4) without accountability 5) on a matter of great consequence. All those conditions are met here. The anonymous officials in this particular case may have tried to be truthful; and even self-serving narratives are sometimes accurate.
But this one was false.
On Monday, NBC News reported that American troops were not under fire:
American forces were not under direct fire when local Afghan forces asked for air support just prior to the U.S. bombardment of an Afghan hospital that killed at least 22 people, the coalition's top commander in Afghanistan said Monday. The Pentagon had previously said U.S. troops were under direct fire.
"I've ordered a thorough investigation into this tragic incident and the investigation is ongoing," U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell said. "The Afghans ordered the same. If errors were committed we'll acknowledge them. We'll hold those responsible accountable and we will take steps to ensure mistakes are not repeated."
Campbell said that Afghan troops were under direct fire and "called in for fire to support them." He acknowledged that initial statements from the coalition indicated that U.S. Special Forces were under direct fire, but that was not the case and he is "correcting that statement here." He said that U.S. Special Forces were in the area, just not under direct fire.
Fox News spread the same incorrect information as the Sunday New York Times:
A senior defense official told Fox News on Saturday that the Taliban have been in control of the area around the hospital since Monday, guarding the building and drawing U.S. special operations forces into a firefight in the area. U.S. forces called in the airstrike because they were under fire and needed cover, the official said.
Is the Fox News source the same person as the Times source? What caused this senior defense official to lead us astray? Does he or she have a track record of feeding false information to reporters? It would be nice to ask him or her, but other journalists cannot follow up because he or she is protected from accountability.