Could the Senate Intelligence Committee Do Oversight of CIA Drone Strikes?

Different Senate committees are supposed to do oversight of different federal agencies. The Senate Judiciary Committee is supposed to oversee the Department of Justice. The Senate Armed Services committee is supposed to do oversight of the Pentagon. And the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to do oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency. Since the CIA is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and since this is, to say the least, a controversial policy, the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be doing oversight of that.

But contemplating the Senate Intelligence Committee's past oversight of the drone strike policy evokes the quote attributed to Gandhi when asked what he thought about Western civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."

Now that criticisms of the drone strike policy are getting some play in the press, people are floating ideas for various reforms. That's great! Let a hundred flowers bloom. But please call on me. I have an idea for a reform.

Why don't we ask the Senate Intelligence Committee to do its job of overseeing the CIA?

Now, you might think, that's a pretty arrogant claim, saying that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been asleep at the switch. Here, therefore, are three pieces of evidence for the claim.

Exhibit A: No public hearings.

Reporting on the Senate Intelligence Committee's confirmation hearing of John Brennan to head the CIA, Ken Dilanian of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Senate Intelligence Committee

has not held a single public hearing on CIA drone strikes that have killed an estimated 3,000 suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the last four years.

Exhibit B: Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, apparently isn't aware of New York Times reporting on the drone strike policy.

Following Brennan's confirmation hearing, Politico reported Sen. Feinstein as saying that

she was unaware of reports that in some instances U.S. officials assumed any male of fighting age killed in a strike was a combatant - a method that could undercount the number of civilian deaths.

That's pretty spectacular, because Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times reported this on May 29, 2012, in a major expose on the drone strike policy:

Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.


This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.


But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it "guilt by association" that has led to "deceptive" estimates of civilian casualties.

"It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants," the official said. "They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are."

The question of whether the CIA has counted corpses in this way is absolutely crucial to the question of whether statements by government officials about low civilian casualties are credible. If, for the last six months, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee was not even aware that this question existed, then the Senate Intelligence Committee was not doing "oversight" as most people would understand the word. If you meet with CIA officials and take everything they say as Gospel Truth, is that "oversight"? If major newspapers report something different from what the CIA officials say - in particular, based on conversations with other administration officials - shouldn't you ask the CIA officials about that? Shouldn't you be aware of it?

[If you think that Senator Feinstein and her staff should get a subscription to the New York Times, you can tell them so here.]  

Feinstein's opening remarks in the hearing indeed indicated that she wasn't aware. Ed Pilkington reported in the Guardian:

The Democratic chair of the committee, Dianne Feinstein, kicked off proceedings by saying that the number of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes each year has "typically been in the single digits".


One of the most authoritative tallies is kept by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the BIJ, which has compiled the best information it could gather from newspaper accounts and its own independent researchers in Waziristan to keep a running score of civilian deaths from 2004 to today.

BIJ estimates that over the past nine years, the US has carried out a total of up to 424 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The attacks have caused, the bureau calculates, at least 556 civilian killings and at most 1,128.

Other sources also contradict Feinstein's claim - which of course she didn't come up with on her own, she was merely repeating the CIA's claim.

Max Fisher reported in the Washington Post:

In her introductory comments to John Brennan's confirmation hearing to becoming director of central intelligence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asserted that civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes now number in the single digits annually. Those numbers are difficult to know with any certainty, and official U.S. estimates are secret. But some organizations do follow open-source reports on the strikes and attempt to track individual civilian casualties. At least some of their numbers, gathered by the scholar Micah Zenko for a Council on Foreign Relations report, appear to contradict Feinstein's assessment.

According to data from the Web site Long War Journal, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a combined 31 civilians in 2008, 84 in 2009, 20 in 2010, 30 in 2011 and 39 in 2012.

The New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, says that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone killed at least 25 civilians in 2008, 25 again in 2009, 14 in 2010, six in 2011 and five in 2012.

Exhibit C. When they want to, Senators can shake information loose from the Administration: one bipartisan letter liberated a key document.

On February 4, a bipartisan group of eleven Senators led by Ron Wyden wrote to President Obama "seeking the legal opinions outlining the President's authority to authorize the killing of American citizens during the course of counterterrorism operations," hinting in their letter that Administration failure to disclose these long-sought memos could snag the confirmation of Brennan to head the CIA.

The same day a Justice Department "white paper" outlining a key memo was "leaked" to NBC News. (This looked like an "authorized leak" to me; I haven't heard any calls to investigate the source of the "leak.")

The next day, Wyden issued a statement saying: not good enough, we need the actual memo.  

The next day, Obama directed the Justice Department to grant congressional intelligence committees "access to a classified memo outlining the administration's legal justification for targeted killing."

So, if they want to, a bipartisan group of eleven Senators can shake information loose from the Administration on the drone strike policy. Brennan's confirmation is still hanging fire. If there's other information these Senators want, the time to demand it is now.

When a group of American peace activists met with the then-acting U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Richard Hoagland in October, he specifically denied  - on the record - the New York Times report about counting "military-age males" as "militants" when they are killed by drone strikes. [Remember, the New York Times report was based on interviews with other Administration officials.]

The question of civilian casualties is crucial to whether the current drone strike policy is a policy that the public would support. A recent survey conducted by James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, indicated that the risk of death to innocent civilians had as great an impact in depressing U.S. public support for military action as the risk of death to U.S. soldiers.

So here is a test of whether the Senate Intelligence Committee can do oversight: find out if it's true that the CIA counts "military-age males" as "militants" when they are killed by drone strikes, and consider the impact of this on the claim that "civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes now number in the single digits annually."

Meanwhile, perhaps Senator Feinstein and her staff could start reading the New York Times.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.




I would say the committee is more overlook than oversight and I would hesitate to recommend a US newspaper because for every ounce of truth one must wade through a lot of trash. The drone issue obfuscates the issue of why on earth are we in Afghanistan anyway. The war on terror is not a good excuse because terrorism can only be combatted by strategically thought out peaceful means with a lot of good economic consequences for the poor. But beyond the deceit of our executive branch and the desire to be deceived of our legislators, we citizens are being cheated big time and have been so since the 1950's. Read the Progressive and the Nation.

I also requested the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to exercise oversight of the CIA after Executive Directors on the World Bank's Board disclosed that "third parties" attempted to intimidate them and other members of the World Bank's Board through shocking invasions of their private lives. Any staff member who discloses wrongdoing to the World Bank Board gets cut off at the pass by the World Bank's Institutional Integrity Department. No wonder Germany announced that it will repatriate 674 tons of gold valued at $17.9 billion from the Federal Reserve.

The Silver Drone with Coca ColaClusters
by michael hall

What courage it must take to set yourself apart from those who serve in the trenches
for a kid gangsta of capitalism to sip a cold coke on one hand
while his other hand is stroking a joystick & with just a gentle press
8000 miles away human beings that have never done him or his harm are now droned into bugsplat

What exceptional bravery this act of aggressive violence must demand
for s/he might suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or worse a blister on the finger
with nerves of steel ne'er to complain for lives are at stake so s/he carries on & pushes the button of terror
careful, what if the soda spilled thereby rendering the keyboard useless? oh the horror

To wreak out death upon sheep-herding children who are obviously terrorists in the making ,ah the bravery
to slaughter dangerous pregnant women at a bridal shower, what pluck & heroism
to kill medics and first-responders who dare to help the wounded from your previous kill, such courage
what gallantry and valor one must exhibit to slaughter mourners at a funeral procession

So to show recognition to the brave souls who kill at command at the press of a knob 1/2 a world way a distinguished 'warfare' medal of honor has been created to award those who have no honor
announced with grandiose fanfare & full flags a' flapping just the other day by war criminal DS Panetta
this will outrank the bronze star and the purple heart and what a triumph is that america?

Such a propaganda coup d'état by the bureaucrats in subterranean dusty think tanks
spun a wonderful way to legitimize a most immoral and illegal act that defines odium
as they flim-flamed & came up with this 'combat' decoration for a most nefarious deed
and i wonder what lucky american school kid will be the first to touch one or to toss it down a toilet

Back at home in the united states of mordor
a great cackle of cheering and applause droned at every school church & walmart throughout the land
to praise & pay tribute to those daring war-idols who earned such a distinguished medal
the much coveted and respected; 'Silver Drone with Coca Cola Clusters'

For who else could earn by total disregard to personal safety with such displays of video gallantry & virtual valor
who else should deserve such a high honor & recognized award squealed Leon Panetta from atop a pile of splattered blood & broken bones
these extraordinary actions by lightening slight of hand manipulation upon a joystick of discriminating death
to murder anywhere anytime anyone for any reason is now the definition of American Hero

The White Letter from The White House Smells not like a White Rose & it Stinks to High Heaven
by michael hall

First obama murdered children inside of foreign nations
so the people shopped at walmart to show their displeasure
then obama assassinated children in countries we were not war with
so flags & troops were honored at every sports game around the land in gratitude

Some lawyers screamed foul as did the few with conscience like Chomsky, Hedges & Blum
but their voices were drowned out by the silence of the bored & apathetic, the meekly submissive
still the good loyal citizens did scream for more guns as their constitutional right
& american idol worship tonight is supposed to be a killer so guess which takes priority?

So obama & the exalted mighty military murdered an unarmed american across the pond
so what did WE THE PEOPLE then do you ask?
they swallowed a blue pill sunk their head deeper into the rabbit hole to breath patriotically
hush hush now little children its all a transparent secret nothing to see here just move along

While a depressed american teenager out looking for his murdered father with his cousin
stopped along a dirt road in the middle of a vast desert praying for his dad at dusk
in the middle of a cookout sitting around the fire, just these two american kids
without warning silence was broken by terrorism as they were subsequently droned to smithereens by the us military

Ah but some fires did light up more intensely this time
so obama & his bunch of hooligans had to reluctantly crawl out of their dark dungeon
they argued with legal thickets of sharpened stakes, moats, pickets, shielded by secrets & lies atop turrets no one could reach
through a tapestry of intricate semantics innuendos & bizarre definitions they declared they were upholding the constitution oxymoronically tagging this odium as wise and ethical

Claiming that the research was so sensitive & so secret that it could not be revealed
our divine heroes would then be exposed to violence & that would be quite unamerican
if that happened whistleblowers then would be scapegoated & we know what happens to them
do you really think that renditions & retaliatory vengeance are just deeds of the recent past?

Cattle mooed meekly as they contentedly chewed the crass cud of american idol worship
embedded sheep bleated reverently to the wolves in wool via indoctrination by years of cognitive brainwashing and dissonance bleaching
the superbowl was a commercial success & beyonce lip-synced flawlessly again
& the flags, ah, the flags flew so high & piously, almost above it all, but did i see, a bloodstain, a tear or was it smoke?


How far does your compassion roam
Does it stop at your front door
or does it travel to the city limits or more
Tell me please how far does your circle of love go?

I know that you have family and that is all good and well
but what is family but an extension of yourself simply reflecting what you selfishly love?
Do you love with empathy across your states boundary do you halt at a illusory national border?
Is that the border of your nepotism?

In a society with 300 million guns
that has been at war every day of its existence
a society that worships its military and holds it military beyond reproach, above the law
how could you be surprised, shocked, or appalled when children are slaughtered?

You cry and wail with great compassion for the children and parents from Newton
but you don't even bat an eye when you read in the news your military just did the same thing
slaughtering kids who were tending sheep, droning funerals, murdering medics and first responders
but since they are not american it just doesn't ring a bell in your conscience and that appalls me to my soul

Every week your military is killing kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing or killing children overseas
Everyday at public schools where your kids are trained to 'Dare to Resist Violence'
They are indoctrinated to worship the military, to absolve them of the rules of law & edification principles
Everyday your troops are in other countries destroying, killing, occupying and it is most nefarious

How many hundreds have you killed?
How many thousands have you slaughtered?
How many millions are the victims of your overseas deeds of terrorism and aggression?
How could you not know &if you know why if you have conscience you say nothing as you raise a stiff arm?

This 'nation' is a fascist empire stolen by violence inflicted upon the indigenousness by ethnic genocide
You've exported your terror to horrify and decimate for national interests & your mammonic way of life
Every day i ponder, i wrack my brain how to show you the smoke of iniquity you generate all over the world
And i am so inept that instead of accepting the truth i am called a traitor, a nut, a fool
for advocating justice, equality, accountability, responsibility, altruism, ahimsa, empathy and nonviolence

"Off with his head" said the queen --- but that died out, back then, when torture was abandoned by "civilized" nations.

Now the "land of the free" has re-invented both.

Thanks for your part of the work to reverse these errors.

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