This week's release of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel’s memo justifying the assassination by drone of American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki sheds a sliver of light on an incredibly opaque, legally dubious and morally questionable drone program. (I delve into the memo's terrifically poor legal reasoning here and here).
Al-Awlaki is just one victim among countless others of a program that the American people know almost nothing about. I say “countless others” because the public does not actually how many people have been wipes off the planet by U.S. drones. The numbers we hear in the media typically come from third-party sources such as the New American Foundation or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, but the numbers generated by these sources hardly agree. As one reporter points out, the data of the New America Foundation conflicts with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004: while the NAF and BIJ report a similar number of total deaths, the civilian casualty rate from the NAF is estimated to be 8% - %15 while the BIJ reports a civilian casualty rate of 11% - 37%. A significant difference to be sure, and one that cannot be chalked up entirely to the government pushing a problematic definition of "militant" as anyone appearing to be an adult male in the kill zone in order to mask the number of civilians killed.
Regardless, both statistics are far greater than the government's misleading numbers. The Obama Administration has rarely commented on civilian casualties, but when government officials do comment they offer absurdly low estimates – sometimes suggesting that the number of civilians killed in Obama’s time in office is in the “single digits.”
While the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in particular makes a great effort to tally the drone deaths, they cannot overcome the government's efforts to keep the American people in the dark about how many people - and especially how many innocent people - are being killed in our name.
Congress could demand more transparency in the drone program, but earlier this year, the Senate quietly removed a provision in an intelligence bill that would have asked the president to issue a public report on the number of people killed via drone in Pakistan every year. The demand was quickly dropped after the intelligence community and many Republican lawmakers objected by claiming more transparency in the drone program would threaten national security.
The government isn't just keeping us in the dark about the number of people killed by drones, but the number of drones themselves, and who operates them. Thanks to aggressive investigative journalists and whistleblowers, we know that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense each have their own drone programs with separate but sometimes overlapping target lists. We know some of the different and shifting criteria that need to be met for a strike (a fact that we only know through an anonymous congressional staffer), but the divisions of the Air Force that actually fly the drones are shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it was unknown to the public that the Air Force flies drones for CIA operations until the pilots themselves came forward.
Meanwhile, what comprehensive research that does exist - albeit not from the government - shows that drones are more effective at creating terrorists than destroying them, that drones decrease US credibility among both governments and people in the region, and, as the Al-Awlaki memo shows, that the drone program sets dangerous legal precedent in the US.
While the release of the Al-Awlaki memo is a step in the direction of better understanding the legal justifications of the program, we need significantly more from the government if we are to come to understand the government's rational for a program that has used unknown American taxpayer dollars to kill an unknown number of people.