Just how many people have America’s drones killed? Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has put the death toll at 4,700—the first time an American official has publicly put a precise figure on the impact of strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. The South Carolina lawmaker's office said he was citing an estimate already discussed on cable television.
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, used the figure during a question and answer session on Tuesday with the Rotary Club of Easley in his home state of South Carolina. His remarks were first reported by the Easley Patch.
“We've killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “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.”
Drone strikes, President Barack Obama’s signature tactic for killing suspected al-Qaida and other extremist fighters, have been “very effective,” said Graham. “It's a weapon that needs to be used.”
Amid a controversy sparked by Obama’s targeted assassination of American citizens overseas suspected of consorting with terrorists, Graham came down sharply against any judicial oversight of the drone war, calling the idea “crazy.”
“I can't imagine, in World War [II] for Roosevelt to have gone to a bunch of judges and said, 'I need your permission before we can attack the enemy,'” Graham said.
Drone war expert Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations noted on his blog that Graham’s figure lined up with the high-end estimate by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
“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,” Zenko said.
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.
Graham's remarks, as reported, did not specify whether he was discussing CIA drone strikes or military drone strikes.
Obama's expanded drone war has broad popular support in the U.S., according to a poll released earlier this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That survey found 56 percent support such strikes and 26 percent oppose them. At the same time, 53 percent worry about potential civilian casualties. But overseas it faces majority opposition, Pew found last year.