How ’60 Minutes’ Became a Pentagon Mouthpiece for Drone War

Yves here. A fresh reminder of too-frequeent instances of lack of distance between the government and mainstream media reporting.

By Sarah Lazare, a staff writer for AlterNet and a former staff writer for Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare. Originally published at Alternet

The Department of Defense gave “60 Minutes” exclusive access to document a test of autonomous drones, and then used the Pentagon-friendly segment to promote the new technology, raising questions about unethical collaboration between the U.S. military and the supposedly independent CBS program.

On January 9, the Department of Defense released a press statement boasting, “In one of the most significant tests of autonomous systems under development by the Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command, successfully demonstrated one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms at China Lake, California.”

The statement appears to be aimed at showcasing the high levels of technological sophistication achieved by the autonomous drone systems, quoting Strategic Capabilities Office director William Roper as saying: “Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature.”

To buttress its statements about the demonstration, the DoD statement points readers to the January 8 episode of “60 Minutes,” titled “The Coming Swarm.”

“The test, conducted in October 2016 and documented on Sunday’s CBS News program ‘60 Minutes,’ consisted of 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets,” states the DoD. “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.”

The DoD statement goes on to state: “The ‘60 Minutes’ segment also featured other new technology from across the Department of Defense such as the Navy’s unmanned ocean-going vessel, the Sea Hunter, and the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Tactical Control and Collaboration program.”

The military’s statement appears to be timed with the release of the show, coming just one day after it aired. The “60 Minutes” episode echoes the military’s giddiness about the technological achievements displayed by the drone technology, even implying such weapons will save human lives.

“It’s early in the revolution and no one knows exactly where it is headed, but the potential exists for all missions considered too dangerous or complex for humans to be turned over to autonomous machines that can make decisions faster and go in harm’s way without any fear,” states presenter David Martin.

The segment features numerous interviews with Pentagon officials, while sidestepping political and ethical questions about the drone war’s many victims. While the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to allow for the most basic public debate transparency about who is being killed by drones, independent reports show that the civilian death toll is staggering. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 966 civilians in Pakistan have been killed since 2004 by U.S. drones. In Yemen, up to 101 civilians have been killed in confirmed drone strikes since 2002. In Somalia, up to 10 civilians have been killed since 2007, according to the Bureau.

In one eyebrow-raising exchange, Martin asks Roper, featured in the DoD’s press release, the following question: “I’ve heard people say that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons. Really?”

Roper replies, “I think I might agree with that, David. I mean, if what we mean… is something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.”

Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, told AlterNet, “They are talking in this gee-whiz way, without acknowledging what kind of terror nuclear weapons have subjected the world to, and what kind of consequences this technology might bring to human beings. This is not to mention the fact that military technology is very rapidly being brought home to the domestic market.”

CBS devoted an entire “Overtime” segment to documenting the challenges of capturing such fast-moving drones with camera technology. “The ’60 Minutes’ team was at the point of abandoning the story when an idea struck: Could a golf cameraman, someone capable of tracking a small white ball flying across sky, capture the Perdix in flight?” CBS states.

“This sure sounds more like a public relations partnership than an act of journalism,” said Naureckas. “You have the military staging an event to show off new technology. They explicitly explain that they wanted the world to see the new weapons technology they have. And ‘60 Minutes’ was thrilled to do it. Their chief concern was whether they would be able to modify their golf cameras enough to capture the fast-moving drones clearly. We’re talking about autonomous drones, which ought to be something that journalists apply the greatest possible scrutiny to.”

This is not the first time “60 Minutes” has been accused of questionable coverage. In 2015, the program aired a segment that smeared the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. As journalist Kevin Gosztola pointed out, “the CBS show used ‘fugitive’ to describe Snowden, ‘convicted spy’ to describe Manning (even though she is not), and ‘mass murderer’ to describe the Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. Anchor Scott Pelley amplified the terror by adding they all had one thing in common: U.S. government security clearances which they turned into weapons.’”

“60 Minutes” did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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  1. EverythingsJake

    When was 60 minutes not at some level a propaganda program for American imperialism? We can go back to the scandal that Mike Wallace re-taped his questions to make himself seem sterner when interviewing the Ayatollah (what that darkie needed was a good straight white male American scolding) and Don Hewitt provided. (Incidentally, Don once reportedly pulled over to harass a women protesting the President of Union Carbide responsible for the Bhopal disaster – at heart, he was a total elitist jerk). Did the program do some good work, were some of its producers on the up and up? Yes, but it never dared to peer under the lid of American exceptionalism that was its stock in trade.

  2. vidimi

    The segment features numerous interviews with Pentagon officials, while sidestepping political and ethical questions about the drone war’s many victims. While the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to allow for the most basic public debate transparency about who is being killed by drones, independent reports show that the civilian death toll is staggering. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 966 civilians in Pakistan have been killed since 2004 by U.S. drones. In Yemen, up to 101 civilians have been killed in confirmed drone strikes since 2002. In Somalia, up to 10 civilians have been killed since 2007, according to the Bureau.

    the phrase ‘up to’ should be replaced by ‘at least’ in every instance in the paragraph above.

    1. Carolinian

      That’s a bit harsh. The show once regularly exposed corporate misbehavior and if Hewitt and his generation weren’t much for challenging imperial America they did regularly go after the corporations which were its driving force.

      That said David Martin has always been a big shill for the Pentagon and no question that the show has taken a rightwing turn to the point that I no longer watch it.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I also remember a 60 Minutes episode from a couple decades ago dealing with the DOD $500 hammers and $2000 toilet seats when those expenditures drew a lot of controversy after being exposed.

        They interviewed some military person who said that the DOD wasn’t that wasteful and hadn’t actually spent those funds on what they claimed, but instead funds were just put on the budget for those items but actually spent on top secret programs they didn’t want the public to know about.

        As you said, 60 Minutes used to be decent but somewhere along the way they switched to hagiography for the empire.

      2. Nelson Lowhim

        May I ask what’s harsh about this? Do you know how the civilian toll is calculated? The funny thing is you write against the drone war and what may come from the tech advancing, you’re immediately blamed for every ill out there, to say nothing of how the civilian toll is always lowered so that people can be extremely condescending about the whole thing. And don’t forget how it’ll be compared to Dresden at every turn. I’m posting that link not to spam but to see the immediate reaction to it. Note that first comment (my own retort to said comment was deleted, of course, it’s here) and how it tries to make the moral case for drones as well as mock the stance as “moral superiority”. Great. And so it goes.

        As for the new tech, as a scifi writer, I’m impressed with what’s coming out, though also scared as things written were meant as warnings—none will be heeded. One hopes there’s a way to ask for some sort of dialogue on the matter, but I’m guessing that there’ll be nothing of the sort.

        1. cnchal

          Thanks for your linked articles and reply. From Phil’s comment:

          . . . You make a good point and I do agree that we can’t let drones reduce the need for a thoughtful review before ordering a strike. However, once the need is confirmed, there’s nothing morally superior about putting American lives at risk to kill someone.

          This is where the main problem is. There will be no thoughtful review and drones will be used indiscriminately with no thought whatsoever, eventually. The military mind that uses this equipment will throw morals out the window and go with might makes right, and to paraphrase Phil “there’s nothing morally superior about putting American lives at risk to kill someone”.

          I pity the future.

  3. H. Alexander Ivey

    I agree. I always find it funny that people brag about how top-draw the US military is, but then accept kill figures that suggest the US military killing radius to be quite low. Like a bomb could go off and only those within a 5 foot radius would be hurt. What a joke! Either the military are firing duds, or someone is lying.

    For those of us of the Vietnam era, shades of the (antithesis) ‘body count’.

    1. Nelson Lowhim

      It’s all the same crap. The people who cheerlead this propaganda will either start saying it “only” killed a few hundred people. Never mind that those estimates are on the low end, to say nothing of what happens after via destabilization. Or they point to the Mongols or Dresden or some other example. All while trying to sound serious about their intentions to kill as many brown people as possible while putting on a good show.

  4. Disturbed Voter

    The State reserves for itself, the sole right to engage in violence. When the people do it, we call it a crime. With government abuse of secrecy, the State can freely abuse its right to engage in violence. And lying … Plato said in The Republic, the State is the only entity that should lie. Transparency in government is the only thing to control this, and that requires push back against abuse of classification labels.

    On an economic point, the State reserves for itself, the sole right to produce money. When the people do it, we call it counterfeiting. Thus it is always allowable for the State to debase its own money.

    1. Bill Heffner

      The San Diego Attorney General just released the results of investigation into the police shootings, killings, of five unarmed men in this city. She advised that in all five cases the level of force was appropriate and justified, and that no action would be taken against the officers involved. That did not surprise very many people, of course.

    2. witters

      Plato’s ‘noble lie’ is, if you read the Republic, a mythological expression of what is a truth – that different people are suited to different roles. It is told to people only AFTER their education has sorted out to which role they are suited. So when they are 18.

    3. Plenue

      People are entirely free to attempt to make their own currencies. But without the backing of national taxes, there’s little motivation for other people to use the new currency.

  5. jfleni

    The Main Stream Media (MSM) always does this “pea-shuffling”. Switch your tv to music, cartoons, or anything that makes more sense than 60 minutes.

  6. Martin Finnucane

    Another grift, of sorts. No doubt, small cadres of grad students in Russia, Iran, and China have already been tasked to figure out how to make these robot swarms useless or worse in actual combat. No doubt they will figure out the problem, and no doubt they will come up with a fix that is several orders of magnitude cheaper than the “revolutionary advance” itself. And, again no doubt, the various military poobahs, political tools, suborned engineers, and defense contractor execs know this full well. Perhaps the smart guys at 60 Minutes aren’t in on the game, but that’s the purpose of smart guys: to be stupid in the right way.

    Military higher-ups are notoriously risk-averse. We usually think of this as their concern for the lives and well being of “their” boys in uniform. However, there may be a more mercenary motive: they know that in actual combat with actually capable adversaries, the hyper-expensive technical advances that they tout as revolutionary, along with their war-nerdy and half-cocked strategic ideas, will prove to be just so much junk. It’s hard to get a lucrative book deal and speaking tour when half the carrier fleet is sitting on the bottom of the Persian Gulf.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I’m guessing some smoke and maybe a mirror or two would do the trick. Wasn’t it Reagan’s similarly touted ‘Star Wars’ missile defense that wound up being able to be fooled by balloons?

  7. vegeholic

    Unfortunately we are going to find that there are diminishing returns on more complexity. If there were unlimited resources and no consequences for waste disposal then I guess we could go on forever inventing complex systems and spending whatever is necessary to make them work. That is not the world we live in. Every direction you look in there are obvious and ominous limits. Complex systems are fragile and that fragility is their achilles heel. At some point the added complexity is more of a liability than a benefit. We are approaching, or have arrived at, that point. But people who live in artificial bubbles of prosperity and plenty have a very different perspective. As long as we keep sending a trillion dollars every year to the pentagon they will find things to do with it. You would do the same thing if you had that kind of budget.

  8. Brad

    By coincidence another PBS sponsored series, “American Experience”, aired the story of the Titan missile blow up in 1980. The multi-megaton warhead didn’t go off that time. The design and non-existent failsafe a fine Martin-Marietta example of quality work.

    If that is any indication, we can expect similar results with the anarcho-communist drones. Will they turn on their masters?

    1. Carolinian

      In fairness the show was more an indictment of the Air Force and their lax procedures than Martin Marietta. The generals were cya at all costs.

  9. clarky90

    I know the difference between “mail” and “junk mail”. Now, I am learning to differentiate between “news” and “junk news”. I love how the “fake news” is calling the “news”, fake!

    Jesus Wept (Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 35)

    “An advertorial is an advertisement in the form of editorial content. The term “advertorial” is a blend (see portmanteau) of the words “advertisement” and “editorial.” Merriam-Webster dates the origin of the word to 1946.[1]
    In printed publications, the advertisement is usually written in the form of an objective article and designed to ostensibly look like a legitimate and independent news story. In television, the advertisement is similar to a short infomercial presentation of products or services. These can either be in the form of a television commercial or as a segment on a talk show or variety show. In radio, these can take the form of a radio commercial or a discussion between the announcer and representative. The concept of internet-based advertorials is linked to native advertising; however, whether the two terms are synonymous is a point of discussion”

  10. Wango Tango

    CBS News is a propaganda network. They did a whitewash on the NSA and a friendly piece on the F-35 cost overruns. Scott Pelley opened the broadcast after the Boston bombing by saying that “We know the terrorists want to take away out freedom.”

  11. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Dick Cheney:
    “I have an idea, let’s tear up the Magna Carta and centuries of jurisprudence that represent the very foundation of our civilization, we’ll just kill anybody anywhere whenever we feel like it with these new drone thingys”.

    A certain African-American community organizer:
    “I think that’s a great idea. I’ll make sure the secret memo that nobody’s allowed to see that provides a legal fig leaf for all this stays secret. That way when I review the secret “evidence” that nobody’s allowed to see when I’m deciding who I feel like killing today, I don’t get bothered by any of that pesky “transparency” or “oversight” stuff.

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