Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch supporter of the U.S. drone wars, Wednesday become the first government official to put a number on the estimated drone strike death toll.
“We’ve killed 4,700,” Graham said during a speech at a South Carolina rotary club, reported on by the local Easley Patch and flagged by Al Jazeera.
“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 told Al Jazeera, but Graham’s office stated that the senator was only repeating “the figure that has been publicly reported and disseminated on cable news.” Graham’s figure aligns with estimates from groups included the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), which has calculate that between 3,072 and 4,756 people have been killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Graham’s figure did not distinguish between “combatant” and “civilian” casualties — a distinction which has, in the War on Terror, prompted debate. But the senator did reportedly say, “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-Qaida.”
During the Senate confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee John Brennan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that of the drone strike casualties, the number of innocent civilians killed each year was in the “single digits.” As Salon noted at the time, her claim is hotly contested. The BIJ’s most up to date statistics, looking at strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, suggest that up to 1,128 civilians have been killed in drone strikes since 2004, putting the yearly figure firmly above single digits.