One of the things itching the people who demand more transparency and accountability in Obama’s drone war is that the secrecy of the program means that the government doesn’t publicly release casualty estimates. This has led a number of journalistic and think-tank organizations to do their due diligence and come up with their own estimates with their own methodologies. Even United Nations special rapporteur Ben Emmerson is in the beginning stages of an investigation into drone deaths in Pakistan and Yemen.
But none of this means the government doesn’t maintain their own, classified casualty estimates.
Micah Zenko, at his CFR blog, caught an obscure statement Sen. Lindsey Graham made yesterday during a speech at the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, South Carolina. Graham issued the boilerplate defense of the drone war and then might have let something slip.
Graham then added: “We’ve killed 4,700. 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.” His estimate of the death toll of suspected terrorists and militants by U.S. nonbattlefield targeted killings is higher than any other reported.My report, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, compiled the averages found within the ranges provided by New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and produced a number about 1,200 fewer.
It is notable that Graham’s estimate nearly matches the TBIJ’s highest estimated range for “total reported killed” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: 4,756. Either Graham is a big fan of TBIJ’s work, or perhaps he inadvertently revealed the U.S. government’s body count for nonbattlefield targeted killings.
It should be noted also that TBIJ, despite their rigorous methodology, was for a long time shunned by a mainstream media that refused to cite their casualty estimates, simply because it recorded the highest ones available. Newspapers and TV typically used the middle-of-the-road estimate, which was New America Foundation. Graham – with his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee – is almost certainly privy to some secret government numbers on drone war casualties. The fact that he might of let it slip here – and the fact that it’s way higher than virtually anybody in the mainstream reports – should be something of a lesson, I think.
Update: Just a reminder to help put this 4,700 in context: the Standford/NYU study of the drone war found that, “The number of ‘high-level’ targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%.”