Drone war’s media profile remains low, despite Jihadi John hit, and opponents resort to an ad campaign to raise public outrage

A ghost is stalking the presidential debates, uninvited and unacknowledged. It’s the silent envoy from a murderous side of U.S. overseas operations, one that’s reviled abroad and can’t help but scar the hearts and minds of the very people our leaders consider pivotal to global success. Here I’m talking about the U.S. drone war.

This week’s news that the loathsome ISIS executioner with the London accent, Mohammed Emwazi—known as Jihadi John—was killed in Syria by a U.S. drone was one of the rare instances when drones draw public attention here.

The candidates’ silence during the debates is understandable, since they have nothing to gain from talking about the drone war, this being one of only three out of the 44 countries Pew surveyed last year where most people support the program. Elsewhere, Pew found, disgust reigns and is growing.

We don’t hear much about that from our media, since earlier disclosures indicating our government knows that drones are killing a lot of civilians provoked scant public response—and this Congress is hardly likely to hold hearings on an effort lawmakers generally support, whose victims are both faceless and distant.

Still, I was surprised a few weeks back to see an article in The Guardian of London in which whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were applauding some new leaks of secret U.S. documents about the drones.

The leaks, which concern CIA and Air Force drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were reported by The Intercept, the maverick U.S. website bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The leaks indicate that drone-borne targeted assassinations: first, are guided by frequently inaccurate “signals intelligence,” meaning inferences based on electronic communication captures instead of ground-level spies; second, are authorized by death sentences pronounced by presidential decree, which are subject to neither review nor appeal; and third, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, many of them reflexively classified as “enemies” posthumously, no matter how thin the evidence that they had done, or intended to do, any harm to us.

As one example, The Intercept reported, during 13-month-long Operation Haymaker in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2012-13, some 200 people died, of whom only 35 were specifically targeted. “During one five-month period … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” The Intercept said.

The reason I was surprised to read that Ellsberg and Snowden welcomed those disclosures was that I hadn’t seen the new leaks reported anywhere else in this country’s media.

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