Dianne Feinstein's Outrageous Underestimate of Civilian Drone Deaths

The powerful Democratic senator says that fewer than 10 civilians per year are typically killed by America's targeted killing program -- despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

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As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein bears more responsibility than anyone in America for ensuring that Congress conducts vigilant oversight of President Obama's targeted killing program. Last week, during remarks at the beginning of John Brennan's confirmation hearings, the California Democrat spoke about her desire for more transparency from the executive branch, and then made a striking claim about the number of civilians the U.S. is killing:

I've been calling for increased transparency on the use of targeted force for over a year, including the circumstances in which such force is directed against U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. I've also been attempting to speak publicly about the very low number of civilian casualties that result from such strikes. I've been limited in my ability to do so. But for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government's conduct of targeted strikes, and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.

Feinstein is explicitly trying to assure Americans privy to less information than she is that, if they could just see the truth, they'd be relieved that so few innocent people are killed in their name. It scarcely needs to be said that it would be despicable to lie about something like that; and that spreading false information out of ignorance or lack of due diligence would be deeply irresponsible for someone in her position, as it would mislead her fellow citizens, damage public discourse, and undermine the credibility of the committee she is charged with stewarding.

Well, prepare to think less of Feinstein.

Her claim that civilian casualties have "typically been in the single digits" for "several years" was imprecise. To evaluate it charitably, let's look at the years 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, the same span she has served as chairman. In that four-year period, do civilian casualties average no more than nine per year, or about 36 total? Are they anywhere close to that estimated figure?

Or are the civilian deaths actually much higher than that number?

Independent researchers believe that Feinstein is wrong. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is one of several organizations that estimate deaths by drone. By their reckoning, the minimum number of civilians killed in drone strikes within Pakistan alone are 119 in 2009, 97 in 2010, 68 in 2011, and seven in 2012. That's a total of 291 civilians killed, 64 of them children. Remember, that doesn't include civilians killed by drones in Yemen or Somalia. We're just talking about strikes in Pakistan since Obama took office.

The New America Foundation is another organization that estimates the number of civilians killed in drone strikes. I've been critical of their numbers in the past because, for reasons I explain here, they almost certainly systematically underestimate the number of civilians that are killed. By their count, drone strikes within Pakistan killed a minimum of 66 civilians in 2009, 16 in 2010, 56 in 2011, and five in 2012, a total of 143 civilians killed. Again, that's only in Pakistan.

For Feinstein to be correct, these two organizations, with their independent tallies, wouldn't just have had to get their minimum civilian casualties figure wrong, they'd have had to wildly overestimate the number -- even though, considering their methodologies, underestimates are more likely. Keep in mind that these organizations didn't even look at all the drone strikes conducted in Pakistan, just the ones that made it into the press; and that it's widely reported that the drone war has shifted away from Pakistan and into Yemen and Somalia in the last year or two.

Another way to prove Feinstein wrong would be to find specific examples of strikes that caused more civilian casualties than she claims. In 2009, there was a targeted killing* that Dexter Filkins later reported on for The New Yorker. Initially, the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it killed 34 Al Qaeda fighters. Later, American officials confirmed that we're the ones who conducted the attack. Filkins went to Yemen to interview eye-witnesses. "I met a fifteen-year-old girl named Fatima Ali, who, when she rolled up the sleeves of her chador, showed me terrible burns," he said, describing just a small portion of his reporting. "Another girl was missing a finger. Her mother, she said, had been killed by the strike."

As he relayed last week:

Some months after the attack in Al Majalah, Amnesty International released photos showing an American cluster bomb and a propulsion unit from a Tomahawk cruise missile. A subsequent inquiry by the Yemeni parliament found that fourteen Al Qaeda fighters had been killed -- along with forty-one civilians, including twenty-three children.

Later, when I spoke to American officials, they seemed genuinely perplexed. They didn't deny that a large number of civilians had been killed. They felt bad about it. But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there. "It was a terrible outcome," an American official told me. "Nobody wanted that."

That single acknowledged incident in Yemen, a country whose civilian casualties we've so far ignored in this article, disproves the claim that civilian casualties in 2009 were in the single digits.

Law-school clinics at NYU and Stanford collaborated on another research report on drones. What follows are their conclusions about a single drone strike on March 17, 2011 in Pakistan. The excerpt is lengthy so that you can judge for yourself the level of detail they were able to gather. Here it is:
On the morning of March 17, 2011, the US deployed a drone to fire at least two missiles into a large gathering near a bus depot in the town of Datta Khel, North Waziristan. To this day, US officials publicly insist that all those killed were insurgents. That position, however, is contradicted by a range of other sources, including the Pakistani military, an independent investigation by the Associated Press, interviews with attorneys, and the testimony of nine witnesses, survivors, and family members gathered for this report. This evidence suggests that at least 42 were killed, mostly civilians, and another 14 injured.

According to those we interviewed, on March 17, some 40 individuals gathered in Datta Khel town center. They included important community figures and local elders, all of whom were there to attend a jirga--the principal social institution for decision-making and dispute resolution in FATA. The jirga on March 17 was convened to settle a dispute over a nearby chromite mine. All of the relevant stakeholders and local leaders were in attendance, including 35 government-appointed tribal leaders known as maliks, as well as government officials, and a number of khassadars (government employees administered at the local level by maliks who serve as a locally recruited auxiliary police force). Four men from a local Taliban group were also reportedly present, as their involvement was necessary to resolve the dispute effectively. Malik Daud Khan, a respected leader and decorated public servant, chaired the meeting.

The jirga had been convened in Datta Khel's Nomada bus depot, an open space in the middle of town large enough to accommodate over 40 people as they sat in two large circles about 12 feet apart. Though drones were hovering daily over North Waziristan, those at this meeting said they felt "secure and insulated" from the threat of drones, because in their assessment at the time, "drones target terrorists or those working against the government." This, in contrast, was a jirga, a government-sanctioned meeting, held to ensure "no problems occurred in the area and no-one would pose problems for the government." According to a Pakistani military commander in North Waziristan, Brigadier Abdullah Dogar, the maliks had even taken care to alert the local military post of the planned jirga ten days beforehand.

At approximately 10:45 am, as the two groups were engaged in discussion, a missile fired from a US drone hovering above struck one of the circles of seated men. Ahmed Jan, who was sitting in one of two circles of roughly 20 men each, told our researchers that he remembered hearing the hissing sound the missiles made just seconds before they slammed into the center of his group. The force of the impact threw Jan's body a significant distance, knocking him unconscious, and killing everyone else sitting in his circle. Several additional missiles were fired, at least one of which hit the second circle. In all, the missiles killed a total of at least 42 people. One of the survivors from the other circle, Mohammad Nazir Khan, told us that many of the dead appeared to have been killed by flying pieces of shattered rocks. Another witness, Idris Farid, recalled that "everything was devastated. There were pieces -- body pieces -- lying around. There was lots of flesh and blood."

Khalil Khan, the only son of Malik Hajji Babat, one of the khassadars present at the jirga, was in the Datta Khel bazaar when he heard about the strike. "We were told in plain words that none of the elders that had attended survived. They were all destroyed, all finished." Khalil Khan immediately went to the Nomada depot to try to find his father. When he arrived at the scene of the strike, he found injured victims and the bus depot in flames. Unable to identify the body parts lying on the ground, all Khalil Khan could do was "collect pieces of flesh and put them in a coffin." Idris Farid, who survived the strike with a severe leg injury, explained how funerals for the victims of the March 17 strike were "odd and different than before." The community had to collect the victims' body pieces and bones and then bury them like that," doing their best to "identify the pieces and the body parts" so that the relatives at the funeral would be satisfied they had "the right parts of the body and the right person."

The trauma of the strike was felt not only by those who witnessed its immediate aftermath, but also by the families left behind. Nearly all of those killed were the heads of large households, who used the government allowances they received through their positions as maliks and khassadars to support their households and fund small businesses. Malik Daud Khan, who led the jirga, was a government-appointed counselor for all of North Waziristan, serving as a political liaison between the Pakistani government and military and the other tribal leaders. He oversaw jirgas throughout the region, and used his allowance, "which was respectable for a decent family," to support six sons and the sons of his brothers. Another malik, Ismail Khan, left behind a family of eight, of whom only two are males old enough to work. The khassadar Hajji Babat also left behind another household of eight; his son now struggles to support them. Because these men held government positions reserved for elders with "experience and years of wisdom," their sons cannot take over their offices. The sons have little hope of finding employment that would provide a standard of living afforded by the allowance of a malik or a khassadar. Babat's son, Khalil Khan, who spent over a decade working as a driver in the United Arab Emirates, told our research team that he often thinks of trying to go abroad again so that he can earn money to support himself. "But if I go," he worries, "what will happen to my family?" The Pakistani government offered to compensate the families with three lakhs (300,000 rupees, or approximately US $3,200) for each man killed, but most did not take the compensation. "Our elders were worth much more than that .... We had lost an entire community of elders."

Some men who survived are now unable to work or earn the living they could before the strike. Ahmed Jan, a malik who used to supplement his allowance by working as a driver, woke up in a hospital in Peshawar after the strike and learned he needed five to six lakhs (approximately US $5,300 to US $6,350) worth of surgery to implant a rod in his leg and to stop the bleeding from his nose and face. Since then, he has lost most of his hearing and the use of one foot. Unable to operate a car, he now depends on his sons, who are also drivers, to support his household. Idris Farid, in addition to living with rods implanted in his leg, told us that the trauma of the strike has caused him to forget "the little bit of education that I [had] gotten when I was little," and has left him terrified of loud noises "because I think it might be a drone."

The precise number of people who died in the March 17, 2011 strike has never been determined, though nearly all available sources -- including the survivors with whom our researchers spoke -- put it at close to 40 or higher. An independent investigation by the Associated Press put the number at 42. Pakistani intelligence officials initially reported that 12 or 13 of the dead were Taliban militants, but the Associated Press investigation found that it was likely only four. Of those four, only one, Sherabat Khan, has ever been identified by name. TBIJ, in separate investigations, has so far obtained the names of 24 civilians killed who died in the strike.
Once again, a single incident, investigated thoroughly by independent parties, is sufficient to contradict Feinstein's claim for another calendar year. Understand that Feinstein didn't investigate this strike like the Associated Press, nor did she travel to Pakistan and interview eye-witnesses like the NYU/Stanford project. She got her information from the Obama Administration.

Recall that this is the same White House that has withheld all sorts of information about the drone program from Congress; recall that three former senior intelligence officials told the New York Times that the Obama Administration's seemingly low-ball estimates had them in disbelief; recall most of all that "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." And recall that the CIA has lied about its activities before.

So why is Feinstein putting stock in their numbers? Spencer Ackerman was able to ask her that question last week:
Feinstein and several other senators during the hearing said the CIA materially misrepresented to Congress key facts about the quality of information it received from its post-9/11 torture and detentions program. That revelation came from the committee's recently completed 6,000-page report into those programs. But since the report is still classified, senators couldn't say outright that the CIA lied to them. Brennan said that the misstatements made by CIA about torture called into question the basis for his public statements years ago that torture extracted valuable information for counterterrorist operations. "I have to determine what the truth is," Brennan said.

But if the CIA misled Congress about torture, how can the committee be confident it's not misleading Congress about civilian deaths from drones?

"That's a good question, actually," Feinstein said when Danger Room asked. "That's a good question."

She said she felt the CIA wasn't "defensive" of the drones in the way it was defensive of the torture program, however.
That's her response in the face of all the independent researchers, analysts, and former senior intelligence officials who disagree with her assessment: She "felt" the CIA wasn't defensive on drones.

There is no reason to treat Feinstein's claim about civilians killed as if it is credible. All the publicly available evidence is arrayed against her position. Her defenders cannot even say what sort of classified information would, if revealed, dramatically refute the careful work of multiple independent drone researchers, whose methodology is public. If Feinstein has credible objections to the studies she can surely voice them without revealing classified information. And she isn't even willing to acknowledge that the party whose estimates she is trusting has clear incentives to lie and a methodology for counting "militants" that is obviously flawed.

Finally, there is the fact that the CIA is known to engage, without the need for White House approval, in "signature strikes" within Pakistan, where they don't even know the identities of the people they're killing. Is Feinstein being deliberately misleading by giving an estimate for "targeted killing" that doesn't include signature strikes? We're unlikely to ever know what she is really thinking, but unless she addresses the matter again with more compelling arguments, there is every reason to believe that her utterances are misleading and incorrect.

*The article originally misidentified the incident as a drone strike.