The Perils of Granting Anonymity to U.S. Officials

News organizations spread false information about a U.S. airstrike that hit an Afghan hospital, as a result of untruths that came from unnamed government sources.

Zemairy, an Afghan boy, was receiving treatment at a Medecins Sans Frontiers facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan weeks before a U.S. airstrike hit the hospital. (Krista Mahr / Reuters)

On Saturday, an American airstrike hit a Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Twelve staff members and 10 patients were killed. Three of the patients were children. NPR reported that some of the victims “burned to death as they lay in their beds.” Tens of thousands of Afghans lost their city’s only free trauma hospital, which will likely lead to even more deaths.

Why did this happen?

As  Médecins Sans Frontières demanded answers the U.S. government spread false information.

“Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” the nonprofit said Monday in a statement. “The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”

The organization is calling for “a full transparent independent investigation.”

Whether or not that happens, reporters covering this story should note how the false information was disseminated: by news outlets relying on anonymous sources.

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.

Here’s the L.A. Times making the same error:

U.S. Defense officials said small teams of U.S. and Afghan special forces were pinned down by Taliban gunfire Saturday morning near the hospital and called in an AC-130 to pound the area with fire.

And here’s the Wall Street Journal:

A senior U.S. military official said that American special-operations forces were supporting Afghan forces in an advisory capacity when their units came under fire from the Taliban. The U.S. force commander called for defensive support, and an AC-130 gunship responded. The strikes included the area in which they were operating, including the hospital.

The cumulative effect of these news organizations relying on anonymity: U.S. officials, either unwittingly or deliberately, were able to spread false information to millions of people, powerfully shaping their initial impressions of a life-and-death story, and probably causing some to be less interested in reading followup coverage.

And while the inaccurate information quickly became public in this case, that may only be because the incident is attracting an unusual amount of critical scrutiny.

As Glenn Greenwald put it:

Usually, the only voices protesting or challenging the claims of the U.S. military are the foreign, non-western victims who live in the cities and villages where the bombs fall. Those are easily ignored, or dismissed as either ignorant or dishonest. Those voices barely find their way into U.S. news stories, and when they do, they are stream-rolled by the official and/or anonymous claims of the U.S. military, which are typically treated by U.S. media outlets as unassailable authority.

In this case, though, the U.S. military bombed the hospital of an organization – Doctors Without Borders – run by western-based physicians and other medical care professionals. They are not so easily ignored. Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.

Over the years, I’ve read countless news articles about drone strikes where U.S. officials were allowed to shape coverage anonymously with self-serving narratives of what happened. Sustained scrutiny and follow-up articles were rare. The U.S. is likely to conduct many more drone strikes in the future. This week’s mistakes should be remembered as a lesson in what not to do. Journalists should stop allow government officials to anonymously inject their talking points into public discourse.

Instead, they should write that “U.S. officials refused to give an on-the-record comment.” Or grant provisional anonymity that will be withdrawn if the information turns out to be inaccurate.

If U.S. officials have accurate information that makes America look better than “no comment,” they’ll go on the record if there is no other way to get it out. And if they’re unwilling to put their names behind a story that seems to serve their interests? That should raise red flags. Those stories often turn out to be misleading and constitute the least defensible sort of anonymity that is regularly granted.