A U.S. Senate committee says Americans have no right to know how many people have been killed by U.S. drones.
Last week the London Guardian reported that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had removed a provision from its fiscal year 2014 intelligence authorization bill. The deleted provision required the White House to issue annual reports of the number of civilians and combatants killed in U.S. drone strikes.
The committee had adopted the bill with the disclosure provision in November but the bill has not yet made it to the full Senate. Then the committee acted in response to a letter sent by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calling for the disclosure provision to be removed.
Transparency has hardly been the hallmark of U.S. drone policy. Not until 2012 did the Obama administration even admit to its use of unmanned aerial vehicles, “drones,” against members of al-Qaida and the Taliban in countries as far flung as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Iraq and Somalia. None of these are countries with which the United States is at war. Meanwhile, U.S. killer drones have been an open secret, with new strikes regularly reported in the media.
While it has finally acknowledged the existence of the drone program, the Obama administration continues to refuse to make public the number of persons killed in drone strikes. Granted, they have killed several high-level members of al-Qaida and the Taliban, but at what cost?
Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban, was killed by a U.S. drone on Nov. 1. However, Hakimullah’s death had the negative side effect of putting a brake on peace talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.
Drone strikes also kill many innocent civilians. How many? The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports at least 451 drone deaths to date in Yemen, 82 of them civilians. The bureau estimates that, since they began in 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 3,718 people, 957 of them civilians.
Civilian deaths are inevitable in military operations. But both just-war theory and international law impose requirements to limit civilian fatalities. Civilians must not be intentionally targeted. Nor is it legal to kill 100 civilians to kill just one terrorist.
Secrecy, too, is unavoidable in armed conflict. The Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb, and the timing and location of the Allied D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe were rightly the two most closely guarded secrets of World War II.
But once D-Day was successful, the American public was told about it. Americans were informed of the atomic bombing of Japan. Once Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALS, Americans were told. The Senate bill required only after-the-fact reporting of drone casualties. This would not compromise military operations.
So why the secrecy?
The Obama administration may not want the American public to know of the deaths of innocent men, women and children.
Worse is the possibility that the Obama administration simply has no idea how many civilians are dying. This is all too likely given how drone strikes are carried out.
The Obama administration has declared that any “combat-age male” in an area of terrorist activity be deemed a terrorist. Drones’ Hellfire missiles are fired on weddings and funerals. “Secondary” strikes are carried out on first responders who rush to aid those injured in an initial drone strike.
In a much-heralded speech at National Defense University last May, President Barack Obama promised new restraint in conducting drone strikes. Drones would be used to kill only in the face of “imminent danger,” where capture of a terrorist suspect was impracticable and where the possibility of civilians death approached zero.
Has Mr. Obama carried out his promise?
Encouragingly, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that U.S. drone strikes have dropped from 92 strikes that killed up to 532 people in 2012 to 55 strikes that killed 271 people last year. Drone fatalities in Pakistan have been on the wane since 2011, with no drone strikes at all in Pakistan for the past three months. This seems like good news. So why won’t the Obama administration say how many people drones kill?
The Obama administration is asking Americans to trust that it’s doing the right thing. But trusting government is hard to do while the NSA is spying on Americans, which we would still not know about if not for Edward Snowden.
Americans have a right to know what their government is doing. If the administration wants Americans to back its drone policy, it will have to tell us a good deal more about it.
Charles Pierson is a Pittsburgh attorney and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition (firstname.lastname@example.org).