At the request of US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, US senators have removed a section from a crucial intelligence bill that would have required the White House to disclose information on those killed by US drone strikes overseas.
The fiscal year 2014 intelligence authorization bill passed through the Senate Intelligence Committee in November with a provision that required the president to offer annual statistics that outline the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by US drone strikes in the previous year.
But at the behest of Clapper, Senate leaders have removed the requirement from the legislation ahead of the bill’s upcoming vote on the Senate floor, the Guardian reported.
Clapper asserted that more context is needed to accurately report these statistics to the public. Therefore, he told senators in a letter on April 18 the Obama administration is seeking other ways to disclose the casualty toll of their legally-dubious drone strike operations.
“The executive branch is currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities,” Clapper wrote to the top members of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein (D) and Saxby Chambliss (R).
“To be meaningful to the public, any report including the information described above would require context and be drafted carefully so as to protect against the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods or other classified information. … We are confident we can find a reporting structure that provides the American people additional information to inform their understanding of important government operations to protect our nation, while preserving the ability to continue those operations,” Clapper added.
The US government does not offer any insight into how many casualties have resulted from its covert drone-strike program that involves both Central Intelligence Agency and US Defense Department operations. Officials like Sen. Feinstein, seeking to salvage the status quo surrounding drone strikes despite deepening opposition worldwide, maintain that the number of civilian deaths from unmanned drone attacks is miniscule.
Several independent groups and journalism organizations attempt to track the number of people killed in the strikes, often using press and ground reports in the likes of Pakistan and Yemen to piece together casualty estimates.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one of the most comprehensive sources for drone casualty figures, estimates that hundreds of civilians – at least – have perished in US drones strikes overseas.
For example, the Bureau has confirmed that drones have killed as many as 451 people in Yemen, including as many as 82 civilians. "Possible" – though unconfirmed – strikes have killed as many as 545 people total and as many as 45 civilians, the Bureau says. The number killed is far more in Pakistan, where an estimated 383 strikes since 2004 have killed as many as 3,718 people, and as many as 957 civilians, according to the Bureau.
Yet the US drone policy is so broad that it considers any military-age male in a strike zone as a combatant, especially if he is armed. Thus, even by the strictest standards, there are likely many more civilians who have died but were considered fighters or militants.
In addition to the high civilian casualty rates, critics say these drone strike policies are done in violation of international law, and question whether the Obama administration has the authority to sanction the killings without a court warrant.
One particular practice denounced by human rights activists is the use of so-called ‘signature strikes,’ in which a drone attack is launched based not on the identification of known Al-Qaeda fighters, but on the behavior of people.
In May 2013, amid criticism about US drone strikes overseas, President Obama said in a policy speech that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” adding that this is “the highest possible standard.” Though the latest strikes, among others, have caused analysts to question whether the Obama administration’s supposed “new rules” for strikes are consistent at all.
The US has unofficially paused its drone strike campaign in Pakistan, as negotiations continue between the Pakistani Taliban and the nation’s government. Yet strikes in Yemen have not stalled – nor has the official secrecy of the US that has marked its drone operations there.
Just over a week ago, multiple drone strikes in Yemen targeting so-called militants killed dozens of people, including some innocents.
In December, a US drone strike killed 15 members of a wedding party, mistaking a procession of vehicles for a militant convoy. The group had been en route to the village of Qaifa, the site of the wedding, when it was hit. The assault left charred bodies strewn in the road and vehicles on fire, officials told AP.
Yemen is considered to be the top foothold for Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate there - Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - is considered the militant network’s most active wing. The Yemeni government has asked the US for assistance in fighting terror threats, yet the entirety of negotiations between the US and Yemen is unknown.
Critics maintain that the drone strikes program in the country has done nothing to stem the growth of Al-Qaeda, and has even increased support for the terror network.
Human rights groups panned the decision to remove the transparency provision from the intelligence bill.
“How many people have to die for Congress to take even a small step toward transparency? It's stunning that after all these years we still don't know how many people the Obama administration has killed with drones,” said Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International’s security and human rights program, according to the Guardian.