What about the civilians? The Senate must dig deeper into who's getting killed by drones

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Correction appended

Last week's confirmation hearing for John O. Brennan as CIA director before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence failed to address an important question about U.S. drone strikes: How many noncombatants are killed by drones?

For the past four years, Mr. Brennan has been President Barack Obama's chief adviser on counterterrorism. He and the president meet each "Terror Tuesday" (the macabre designation used in the White House) to study proposed "kill lists" of suspected members of al-Qaida and the Taliban in order to decide who will be killed by Hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial drones.

President Obama first considered Mr. Brennan for CIA director four years ago. A 25-year veteran of the agency and a former Saudi Arabia station chief fluent in Arabic, Mr. Brennan had held the CIA's No. 3 post and thereafter had served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Mr. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration as CIA director after human rights groups charged that he had been involved in the Bush administration's water-boarding of suspected terrorists. In 2007 Mr. Brennan said that "water-boarding saved lives," but said last week that water-boarding was "reprehensible" and should "never be used" -- and never would be used by the CIA if he is approved as director.

Many more questions at Thursday's Senate hearing were devoted to CIA "enhanced interrogation" than to drones. Questions on drones focused on American deaths. Yet only three Americans have been killed by drones. The best-known is the American-born radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a member of al-Qaida who was killed in Yemen in September 2011. Al-Awlaki was referred to repeatedly at the hearing. (His 16-year- old son, also killed in a drone strike, went unmentioned.)

Compare the handful of American deaths with the thousands of Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis killed by drones since strikes began under President George W. Bush in 2004.

Drones have done some good, taking out several high-level militants.

On Aug. 5, 2009, a U.S. drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban who is believed to have been behind the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. However, the drone which killed Mehsud and his wife also obliterated the entire building they were in, killing nine other people. This was the United States' 15th attempt to kill Mehsud. Along the way, U.S. drones killed between 204 and 321 people. Were all of them terrorists?

Probably not. The White House, however, refuses to say how many civilians have been killed by drones.

In the absence of hard information, conflicting figures abound. The New American Foundation think tank which monitors drone attacks estimates that 16 percent of those killed by drones are noncombatants. Many victims are children: 176 children from 2004 to mid-September 2012, according to the independent Britian-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Estimates from within Pakistan are considerably higher: as high as 90 percent, according to the Pakistani government. The independent Pakistani NGO Pakistan Body Count claims civilian casualties of from 75 percent to 80 percent since the drone strikes began.

The United States paints drones as surgically precise weapons which kill terrorists while taking few civilian lives. Speaking publicly in June 2011, Mr. Brennan said that no civilians had been killed by drones for nearly a year. When that claim raised eyebrows, Mr. Brennan backpedaled, telling The New York Times a few days later that there had been no "credible evidence" of civilian casualties for the past year. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism contends that at least 45 civilians were killed by drones during that period.)

What does Mr. Brennan think now? All he would say Thursday, in answer to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is that administration use of drones is "very judicious" and that drones are used only as a "last resort" to save lives when capture is impossible.

This is hard to believe. Hellfire missiles are fired into wedding parties and funerals. "Secondary" strikes are launched on rescuers who rush to aid the injured following an initial drone strike. The White House deems any male of military age who is killed to be a militant. Questionable practices, but no questions were asked.

Drones have killed so many Pakistanis that they have become the No. 1 recruiting tool for the Taliban and al-Qaida. Anti-American feeling in Pakistan runs high. Asked why, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar answered with one word: "drones."

Civilian casualties are unavoidable in warfare. But killing scores of innocents in order to kill one terrorist is both unjust and unlawful. When Al-Qaida and the Taliban take innocent lives, we rightly condemn them.

Fortunately, our senators will have a second chance to ask the right questions today during a closed-door session to discuss classified material. The intelligence committee must do better this time.

Correction Feb. 26, 2013 This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: John O. Brennan has been President Barack Obama???s chief adviser on counterterrrorism for four years. The number of years was misstated in an op-ed article published Feb. 12.


Charles Pierson is a Pittsburgh attorney (chapierson@yahoo.com).


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