Guest commentary: Senate should hold public hearings on drone strikes

The Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to do oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency. Since the CIA is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and since this is a controversial policy, the Senate Intelligence Committee should be doing oversight of that.

But, as the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the Senate Intelligence Committee has never held a public hearing on CIA drone strikes. Indeed, for the year prior to the recent confirmation hearing of John Brennan to head the CIA, it never held a public hearing at all.

Following Brennan's confirmation hearing, Politico reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was unaware of reports that U.S. officials assumed any male of fighting age killed in a strike was a combatant — a method likely to undercount the number of civilian deaths.

That's alarming, because the New York Times reported this in May, based on interviews with administration officials, in a major expose on the drone strike policy. One administration official outside the CIA called the CIA practice "guilt by association" that has led to "deceptive" estimates of civilian casualties. "It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants," the official said. "They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are."

The question of whether the CIA has "counted corpses" in this way is crucial to the question of whether statements by government officials about low civilian casualties should be believed.

The questions of civilian casualties and who exactly is being targeted are crucial to whether the current drone strike policy is one the public would support. A recent YouGov poll found more Americans oppose drone strikes than favor them if there's a risk of innocent civilians being killed, and most Americans would only support the use of strikes against high-level terrorist targets, not against anyone suspected of being associated with a terrorist group. These questions are related, because if there's a risk of civilian casualties, it matters how important the military target is.

In her opening remarks in Brennan's confirmation hearing, Sen. Feinstein said that the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes each year has "typically been in the single digits."

But, as the Washington Post and the Guardian noted, this claim is contradicted by independent reporting of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the Long War Journal, and the New America Foundation in Washington.

The BIJ estimates that over the past nine years, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have caused at least 556 civilian deaths. The Long War Journal says U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a combined 31 civilians in 2008, 84 in 2009, 20 in 2010, 30 in 2011 and 39 in 2012. The New America Foundation says U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone killed at least 25 civilians in 2008, 25 again in 2009, 14 in 2010, six in 2011 and five in 2012.

Senators have shown that they can successfully press the administration to disclose information about the drone strike policy. On Feb. 4, a bipartisan group of 11 senators, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, wrote to President Obama "seeking the legal opinions outlining the President's authority to authorize the killing of American citizens during the course of counterterrorism operations," hinting in their letter that administration failure to disclose these memos could snag Brennan's confirmation of Brennan to head the CIA. Days later, President Obama directed the Justice Department to grant congressional intelligence committees access to a classified memo outlining the administration's legal justification for targeted killing. Now Sen. Feinstein has said that the Intelligence Committee will delay a vote until more memos are disclosed.

Other Senate committees should also hold public hearings. The Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Sen. Durbin sits, oversees the Justice Department, which produced the secret legal memos justifying the drone strikes. The Armed Services Committee oversees the military, which is also conducting drone strikes.

Before confirming Brennan to head the CIA, the Senate should attempt to determine whether it's true that the CIA has been counting "military-age males" as "militants" when they are killed by drone strikes, and establish the impact of this on the claim that "civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes now number in the single digits annually." And it should do this in public hearings.

Robert Naiman, an Urbana resident, is the policy director of Just Foreign Policy.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
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Sid Saltfork wrote on February 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Rules of warfare?  There will be collateral damage in the form of non-militants killed, or injured in every war.  Drone warfare is currently the most surgical way of killing enemies.  Troops on the ground, or aircraft bombing result in much more collateral damage.  Of course; the alternative would be to not kill enemies.  The question for the public to answer is to kill enemies, or not.  Politicians can portray dismay, shock, righteousness, indignation, sadness, and even shed a tear on cue like actors.  Give them "oversight"; and their performances will only get longer, and louder.  That is not an efficient way to conduct a war.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 25, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I agree with you - the problem that people usually have is that drone strikes tend to blur the lines between combatants and noncombatants.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 25, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Yes, it does.  The current technology is more focused; but humans run it.  Humans make the errors in warfare, not the technology.  People criticize the use of drones; but it decreases the loss of US military life.  People do not criticize the last second video images on television though.  Remember the poor Iraqi driver on the bridge?  His family should have received residuals for the number of times that footage was shown.