A US senator has said an estimated 4,700 people, including some civilians, have been killed in the contentious bombing
raids of America’s secretive drone war, local media reported Wednesday.
It was the first time a lawmaker or any government representative had
referred to a total number of fatalities in the drone strikes, which have been condemned by rights groups as extrajudicial assassinations.
But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch supporter of the drone raids, openly cited a number that exceeds some independent estimates of the death toll.
“We’ve killed 4,700,” Graham was quoted as saying by the Easley Patch, a local website covering the small town of Easley in South Carolina.
“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,” Graham told the Easley Rotary Club.
Graham’s office did not dispute his reported remarks but suggested that he had not divulged any official, classified government figure.
A spokesman told AFP that the senator “quoted the figure that has been publicly reported and disseminated on cable news.”
His remark was unprecedented, as US officials have sometimes hinted at estimates of civilian casualties but never referred to a total body count.
“Now this is the first time a US official has put a total number on it,”
said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If there was an official death toll estimate, it would be classified as
secret, he added, raising the prospect that Graham could have broken secrecy laws.
Several organizations have tried to calculate how many militants and
civilians may have been killed in drone strikes since 2004 but have arrived at a wide range of numbers.
The figure cited by Graham matches the high end of a tally by the
London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It says the number killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is between 3,072 and 4,756.
In hearings this month on the nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennan,
Senator Dianne Feinstein said she understood that the number of civilians killed was in the “single digits.”
Despite criticism from lawmakers and rights advocates who have questioned the secrecy and the legality of the drone attacks, Graham defended Obama’s reliance on the unmanned, robotic aircraft.
“It’s a weapon that needs to be used,” Graham said. “It’s a tactical
weapon. A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle that is now armed.”
Drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are covert attacks overseen by the CIA, while bombing runs by drones in Afghanistan fall under the US military’s authority and are not cloaked in secrecy.
The Obama administration has insisted the “targeted killings” are “a last resort” against those plotting to attack the United States but who cannot be captured.
Opponents, however, say drone strikes amount to extrajudicial
assassinations that sow resentment among local populations and lack oversight by Congress or courts.