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.