The figure is in line with the findings of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Is that where he got it? Or does he know something we don't?
Strange things happen when a country kills people but refuses to give even a rough estimate of how many. Have American drone strikes killed 2,000 humans? 3,000 humans? 4,000 humans? 5,000 humans? 6,000 humans? No one knows for sure. President Obama avers that citizens are right to debate the killings. But he won't reveal how many men, women, and children are killed. In response, several nonprofits have endeavored to parse media reports from Pakistan and beyond. They're our best sources until the truth outs, as it eventually tends to do.
Enter Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Earlier this week, he spoke to the Rotary Club in the small town of Easley, South Carolina. "We've killed 4,700," he told them. "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." Is that really how many we've killed?
Are we expected to believe that 4,700 people posed an imminent threat to American security?
The estimate quickly spread through the media. Did Graham reveal classified information? Is his figure the best estimate Americans have of how many people are being killed in our names?
Micah Zenko took up that question:
His estimate of the death toll of suspected terrorists and militants by U.S. nonbattlefield targeted killings is higher than any other reported. My report, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, compiled the averages found within the ranges provided by New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and produced a number about 1,200 fewer.
It is notable that Graham's estimate nearly matches the TBIJ's highest estimated range for "total reported killed" in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: 4,756. Either Graham is a big fan of TBIJ's work, or perhaps he inadvertently revealed the U.S. government's body count for nonbattlefield targeted killings.
It's noteworthy even if Graham, who is in a position to know more than we do, merely finds The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's reports more credible than competing reports with lower numbers.
So what does Graham have to say for himself?
Asked about the disclosure, Graham's office forwarded a clip from MSNBC in which the anchor cites the figure of 4,700 killed. Asked whether the Obama Administration harbored any concerns about Graham's comments, National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor sent along a blog post including the same clip.
So either the Republican senator from South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gets his information on drone strikes from MSNBC and just passes it along to his constituents ... or his educated guess is that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's numbers are the most credible ... or he has just committed a crime by revealing classified information -- even though, if it's the last scenario, there's no reason to think that knowing 4,700 humans have been killed in American drone strikes would compromise national security. Strange things happen when a country kills people but refuses to tell its citizens how many.