While questions about transparency have of late focused on the
government’s surveillance programs, some members of Congress would like
to direct some of that scrutiny towards another aspect of the national
security state: the targeted killing program.
On Wednesday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and Republican
Walter Jones introduced a bill that would compel the Obama
administration to report annually how many people are killed or injured
in US drone strikes—and, critically, to make a clearer distinction
between combatants and civilians.
How many people the US is killing via drones, and who those people
are, has been difficult to determine because of official secrecy. Last
year, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability,
President Obama announced
new guidelines for strikes designed to minimize casualties. The
question the reporting requirements seek to answer is whether the
government really is “meeting the standard that we’ve set of not
striking unless to a near certainty we’re sure that there are going to
be no civilian casualties,” Schiff told The Nation.
Administration officials and lawmakers sympathetic to the
intelligence agencies have argued that drone strikes result in a low
number of civilian casualties— “typically…in the single digits,” Dianne
Feinstein claimed in 2013. It’s fair to ask whether we can really draw a
meaningful line between nine dead innocents and ten. There’s also
evidence that the administration has crafted a definition of civilian so
as to artificially lower the casualty count. Reportedly, the administration considers all adult males within the strike zone as combatants—effectively, assuming guilt by location.
“It’s important that we understand how the administration will be
defining ‘combatants’ to be able to evaluate the numbers that we
ultimately get,” Schiff said. “Are we defining
combatants in a way that we clearly know who they are, that they’re
fighting against us? Or do we have a more amorphous definition where
it’s difficult to tell?”
The requirement would cover all strikes outside “theatres of
conflict,” which at the moment refers only to Afghanistan. Schiff
emphasized that the public report would not provide any information that
would be damaging to national security and thus worthy of
classification; it would be a bulk annual tally, with no information
about particular strikes, their location or the department involved.
Significantly, the legislation compels the administration to provide a
count for the deaths and injuries from drone strikes dating back to
2008. That would open the door for critical evaluation of claims made by
officials and lawmakers like Feinstein about the number of civilians
A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty
International and the Center for Constitutional Rights hailed the bill
as a “modest yet crucial step toward ending excessive secrecy about US
drone strikes.” Their statement
went further in probing the civilian-military distinction, arguing that
pre-emptive, targeted killing in the absence of a direct threat is
unlawful regardless of how one defines militant. “Outside the narrow and
exceptional circumstances of armed conflict, where international human
rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if
he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort.
For this and other reasons, we do not necessarily agree that the terms
‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ apply,” reads the statement.
Schiff said the greatest challenge is getting the bill out of the
House intelligence committee, which last year rejected a similar
measure, rather than passing it through the full chamber. Still, he
judged it “likely” that a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian
Republicans similar to the one that drove congressional opposition to
the NSA’s surveillance programs will unite to call for transparency in
the drone program.
“We’re taking a very small step here because even small steps, in
this area, are difficult,” Schiff said. He was clear, however, about its
implications. “It’s a way of building support for, ultimately, a change
in policy.” Reporting the dead as a statistic may be only a first step,
but it’s a necessary one on the way to a conversation about the very
real people killed in our name.
Article in The NATION