“A basic report of the number of people killed shouldn’t be too much to ask,” one human rights advocate argues.
It appears Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and her colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee have largely forgiven the U.S. intelligence community for eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their email correspondence.
Acting on the request of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Feinstein and her colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee voted on Monday to remove a provision from a major intelligence bill that would have required the U.S. government to disclose information about when drone strikes occur — especially overseas — as well as information about the victims of the drone strikes.
Though previous drafts of the intelligence legislation didn’t require the White House to disclose the exact number of drone strikes carried out worldwide, human rights groups applauded the move to publish an annual report available to the public on the exact number of “combatants” and “non-combatant civilians” killed or injured by U.S. drone strikes each year.
Layers of secrecy surrounding the United States’ drone program prevent the public from knowing the exact number of people killed by drone strikes each year. However, several independent groups and journalism organizations are working to track when and where drone strikes occur and the number of persons killed and injured as a result.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported earlier this month that since Obama took office in 2009, there have been at least 397 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These attacks have killed 2,183 people — 279 of which were innocent civilians, including children.
Of those drone strikes, nearly 55 occurred last year, killing about 271 people. Since the number of “combatants” killed includes any man of military age and those in possession of weapons, the number of innocent civilians killed is likely much higher than what is currently reported.
Kowtowing to Clapper
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s decision to move away from transparency comes after Clapper wrote a letter to Feinstein, the committee’s chairwoman, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee’s vice chairman, on April 18, asking that the transparency clauses in the proposed Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 be removed in order to allow the executive branch to continue its “fight against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces.”
Clapper argued that while the president said in a speech delivered last May at the National Defense University that he wanted to share as much information with the American public and Congress as possible about the drone strikes being carried out across the world, the intelligence official claimed that when it comes to dealing with active and hostile forces, the intelligence community can’t always be as transparent as it would like to be.
“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,” Clapper wrote, explaining that the executive branch would be working on creating its own proposal to keep Congress and the public informed on counterterrorism operations.
The national intelligence director continued, “We are confident that 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.”
Much to the dismay of human rights advocates, Clapper failed to expand on how the executive branch might boost the transparency of drone operations.
“How many people have to die for Congress to take even a small step toward transparency?” said Zeke Johnson, the director of Amnesty International’s security and human rights program. “It’s stunning that after all these years we still don’t know how many people the Obama administration has killed with drones.”
Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, echoed Johnson’s sentiments, saying the removal of the provision was a step in the wrong direction.
“Congress is charged with oversight of the administration and this is a matter of life and death,” Hawkins said. “A basic report on the number of people killed shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
Ben Emmerson, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, has historically encouraged all countries that carry out lethal drone operations to publicly disclose information about their drone attacks and the number of victims. As of press time, he had not released a statement on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s latest move toward limiting transparency.
Last month, Emmerson released what many deemed a “damning” report on drone warfare. He specifically called out the United States for the “disproportionate civilian casualties” that have resulted from the country’s drone strikes.
Who runs the U.S.? Intelligence officials
When news began to spread that the “modest” transparency provisions had been removed, the Senate Intelligence Committee said that the decision was made not because the lawmakers were pressured by Clapper and other intelligence officials, but to ensure that the bill would be passed in the next few weeks by both houses.
Though the American public has started to show reluctance in engaging in drone warfare, the intelligence community and many Republican lawmakers have argued that drones are necessary for fighting terrorists. They also say the release of public reports regarding drone usage would only impede the nation’s ability to combat terrorism.
President Obama is often cast as the largest supporter of drone warfare, but during a policy speech last May, Obama explained that he didn’t want to completely eliminate the country’s ability to use drone technology to kill its enemies as part of the war on terrorism. Instead, he would prefer to restrict the use of the technology and ensure that before a strike occurs there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. drone strikes and related casualties are declining worldwide. The decreases could be due to the country’s decision to temporarily halt on drone strikes in Pakistan as negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani government officials are underway. The drop is not necessarily the result of improved intelligence or improved capabilities to strike a specific target.
Obama also proposed gradually removing the CIA’s ability to use drones. This would allow his administration to more freely discuss the targeted killing operations the drones have largely been used for in Yemen and Pakistan. However, in January, the Senate blocked the Obama administration from removing the CIA from drone operations entirely, which would have given the Defense Department sole responsibility for the technology.
Why Feinstein and her fellow lawmakers opted to keep the CIA actively involved in U.S. drone warfare efforts isn’t entirely known. In the past, Feinstein has minimized the number of civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes, describing the figures as “miniscule” and in the “single digits.” She has also been a staunch supporter of the CIA — even after a recent discovery that CIA officials misled the Feinstein-led Senate Intelligence Committee about the agency’s post-9/11 torture and detention program.
The world may largely disagree with Clapper’s assessment of the unimportance of transparency when it comes to drone strikes, and the American public may be shocked to find lawmakers once again kowtowing to the intelligence community, but in retrospect, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s turnaround on Monday maybe shouldn’t come as such a surprise.
As whistleblower Ray McGovern recently shared, the intelligence community and Clapper, in particular, have grown accustomed to answering to no one — not even the president. McGovern says they are not afraid to assassinate any lawmaker who threatens to strip them of their power, which, he adds, is likely what happened with both Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy.
Being held accountable for the human rights and other violations of the drone program by not only Obama and Congress, but also the American and global public, may not be ideal and it could be damning for certain intelligence officials’ careers, but it’s nothing less than what these same officials would likely expect from other nations.