Fact-checking Feinstein on civilian drone deaths

At John Brennan's confirmation hearing, the senator understated civilian casualties from drones

Published February 8, 2013 2:35PM (EST)

Opening the Senate confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee John Brennan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered a mini panegyric to drone strikes. She lamented the secrecy surrounding the CIA's drone program as she wanted to be able to speak more openly about its successes and the minimal collateral damage of drone wars. She stated that civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes each year has "typically been in the single digits."

Later in the hearing, Brennan rejected claims that drone strikes were provoking a backlash of anti-American sentiment. He said citizens are instead grateful to be rescued from the grip of al-Qaida. But commentators have been swift to challenge Feinstein's claims based on contradicting open-source reports and studies. As both the Washington Post and the Guardian note, civilian death numbers are difficult to tabulate with certainty (indeed, the very question of how the administration categorizes "civilian" or "enemy combatant" is in itself contentious). Suffice to say that Feinstein's "single digits" comments stands at odds with others' findings.

According to an extensive report by researchers at NYU School of Law and Stanford University Law School, disputed the line coming from the White House and from Feinstein on Thursday. The report cites statistics from the U.K. based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), which found that from June 2004 to September 2012 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killed between 474 to 881 civilians, including 176 children. The BIJ relies on newspaper accounts and its own independent researchers in Waziristan.

The Stanford/NYU study backs up such figures with evidence of the trauma of living under drones strikes, based on "interviews with victims and witnesses of drone activity, their family members, current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists." Even if the BIJ's lowest estimation of 474 civilians in Pakistan alone were accurate, Feinstein's figures would still be far off the mark.

The Washington Post offers two other sources, which also contradict the intelligence committee chairwoman:

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.

And as WaPo points out, with U.S. drone bases maintained in West And East Africa (not to mention the recently revealed base in Saudi) as well as strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia, "it’s plausible that the civilian casualties would be even higher than the Long War Journal and New America Foundation stats reflect." 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. But as Brennan's hearing made clear yesterday, evidence of trauma and civilian casualties caused by U.S. drones will continue to be a counter-narrative to the prevailing, drone-loving sentiment in Washington.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Cia Civilian Deaths Dianne Feinstein Drones John Brennan Pakistan Senate Intelligence Committee Yemen