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 killed.
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.