What's Wrong With Jane Harman's Portrayal of America's Drone War

She insists that civilian casualties are "very rare." But the facts contradict her assurances.

During an Aspen Ideas Institute panel on the American military's role in the world, Jane Harman, who served in Congress until 2011, asserted that civilian deaths from American drone strikes are "very rare," adding that her characterization was based on her access to classified information. She went on to discuss how important it is for Americans to understand the subject. I agree that a better public understanding of drone strikes is important. That's why her characterization bothered me so much. The audience at Aspen is filled with smart, influential people whose careers preclude them from following national security policy as closely as politicians and journalists. But they're interested in being informed about these issues, so they come here.

I'd hate for them to leave spreading the inaccurate belief that civilian deaths from American drone strikes are "very rare." So I stood during the question and answer session and stated the following:

1) That while some drone strikes target specific accused terrorists like Anwar Al-Awlaki, the C.I.A. is also authorization to carry out so-called signature strikes, which target people whose identities we don't even know.

2)  As the New York Times reported (I read this quote to the panel and the audience) "Mr. 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."

Given all this, I asked Harman, how can you confidently assert that our drones kill "very few" innocents? As soon as I stopped speaking I grabbed my iPad to record her answer. And here it is:

For me, it was a frustrating exchange. I hoped that the moderator, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, would press Harman, or former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, or Retired Brigadier General Craig Nixon to give the audience more information on the subject at issue - the actual number of civilian deaths from American drone strikes, and whether "very few" is an accurate or misleading characterization. She took the conversation in a different direction, pointing out that the military folks who pilot drones take it very seriously. The vast majority of drone critics would readily concede that to be the norm (though as I told her after the panel, we know comparatively little about the C.I.A drone protocol).

So how many civilian casualties from American drone strikes are there? Harman praised White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan for making public some information on the subject of drones. Unfortunately, he isn't a credible source on casualties, which isn't surprising given that he works for an administration that is willing to count all dead military age males as militants.

Even given that absurd standard, the civilian casualty numbers the White House puts out are self-contradictory, as Pro-Publica demonstrates. They go on to give a good rundown of independent civilian casualty estimates in Pakistan:

A count by Bill Roggio, editor of the website the Long War Journal, which bases its estimates on news reports, puts the number of civilian killed in Pakistan at 138. The New America Foundation estimates that, based on press reports, between 293 and 471 civilians have been killed in the attacks. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which draws on a wider array of sources including researchers and lawyers in Pakistan, puts the number of civilians killed at between 482 and 832. The authors of the various estimates all emphasize that their counts are imperfect. 

Of course, drones are being used in other countries too. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which lays out its methodology here, estimates that 58 to 146 civilians have been killed in Yemen, and that 11 to 57 civilians have been killed in Somalia. Michael O'Hanlon is correct when he says, in the clip above, that there are some abroad who have an incentive to inflate the number of deaths by drone the United States is causing. It is also true that the United States has an incentive to understate the numbers, that its methodology for determining who is a militant obviously overstates their numbers, and that there are almost certainly C.I.A. strikes that never get mentioned in the press reports that independent investigators rely on to formulate their numbers.

Let's return to the more conservative Pakistan estimate calculated by the New America Foundation. Tallying its best assessment of militants and innocents killed, its scholars concluded that "the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 16 percent." In other words, out of every 100 people killed by American drones, 16 were innocent civilians, some of them children. Imagine that even this conservative estimate overstates the innocents killed, and that the true rate is one out of every ten dead are innocents.

Is that "very rare"?

The broader problem with Harman's "trust me, I've seen classified information" defense of current drone policy is that other people who've seen the same information - but are prohibited from speaking out on the record due to secrecy rules - are nevertheless expressing their doubts to the press. "In interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low," The New York Times reported. "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.'"

What reason would these "former senior intelligence officials" have to come forward with these concerns if the information available to those with security clearances really made it clear that civilian deaths are "very rare"? But had this unusually drone-obsessed journalist not been sitting in the audience, "very rare" and "I have secret knowledge proving it" is the only impression Harman would've made on the audience - and there are many occasions when various elected officials, past and present, leave the citizenry with exactly that characterization.