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Sen. Lindsey Graham says US drones have killed nearly 5,000 people

Published time: February 20, 2013 20:38
Edited time: February 21, 2013 11:38
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

For the first time ever, a senior US senator has publicly announced the number of victims of America's ever expanding drone war — and apparently it's even bigger than some independent researchers have suggested.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) put a number on the United States’ growing tally of kills caused by Uncle Sam’s arsenal of drones on Tuesday this week while speaking to constituents at the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, South Carolina.

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the Council for Foreign Relations says Sen. Graham told the crowd. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

The influential American lawmaker has gone on the record several times in recent months to defend the expanding role of drone warfare in America’s foreign wars, but the actual number of casualties caused by the missile-equipped robots has gone largely unreported. In fact, neither the Executive nor Legislative branches of the US have formally offered as much as an estimate regarding the number of kills, and drone-strikes led by the Central Intelligence Agency have largely gone unconfirmed by the CIA, despite first-hand accounts from survivors of the attacks.

Previously, journalists that have been tasked with putting a body count on the drone program have settled on significantly smaller figures: in October 2012, the Washington Post reported that the number of drone deaths would soon hit 3,000 according to some estimates; two months later, an analysis of tallies from the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism left the Council for Foreign Relations with an estimate of around 3,430 deaths.

When researchers at Stanford University and New York University published their ‘Living Under Drones’ report last September, they found that only about 2 percent of drone casualties are top militant leaders, and the Pakistani Interior Minister has said that around 80 percent of drone deaths in his country were suffered by civilians. Meanwhile, the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terror operations had claimed that the UN has started “an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [UN] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks,” but independent research, when coupled with Sen. Graham’s statement, suggests that America’s drone wars have killed more than just a handful of civilians.

For now, though, the senator’s remarks are perhaps the only ones the American people have been provided with by a Washington official who may actually be able to provide insight into the real toll of the wars abroad. President Barack Obama has defended his drone wars and said last year that the program is kept on “a very tight leash” and his administration does not conduct "a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”

Speaking in South Carolina this week, Sen. Graham added that he considers the drone “a weapon that needs to be used.” As he continued, however, it was revealed that he might mean more than just internationally. Speaking on Tuesday of unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles, the senator said, “we need drones along the border so we can really control illegal immigration,” reports the Easley Patch.

Graham also touched upon the drone killing of Anwar Al-awlaki, a US citizen associated with Al-Qaeda. Critics say his death was an unlawful assassination of a person entitled to a court trial, as warranted by the US Constitution. The senator argued that Al-awlaki didn’t deserve one as he was an enemy combatant.

“I didn't want him to have a trial,” the senator said. “We're not fighting a crime, we're fighting a war. I support the president's ability to make a determination as to who an enemy combatant is. It's never been done by judges before. I support the drone program.”

During just the first ten days of 2013, 40 Pakistanis were killed with drones. At least 11 of them are reported to have been civilians.