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Are drone strikes creating more enemies for America than they are killing extremists? That’s the question at the heart of new bipartisan legislation aimed at requiring the executive branch to issue an annual report detailing the combatant and civilian death toll from missile strikes by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, a frequent critic of “war on terrorism” policies, introduced the “Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act.” The goal? Find out who is dying in drone strikes.
“Tactically, drones can be enormously effective. We’ve taken some really bad actors off the battlefield,” Schiff told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “Strategically, it’s more of a mixed bag because it does alienate large numbers of people when there are civilian casualties.”
The measure calls for an annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured in strikes by remotely piloted aircraft. It also aims to require that the administration define what it considers “combatants” and “civilians.” And it seeks a full accounting of casualties over the past five years.
“It would be helpful to counter some of the propaganda that’s used against us, having the ability to show how many combatants were taken off the battlefield, as opposed to how many civilians were killed,” said Schiff.
“Our government’s use of drones for targeted killings should be subject to intense scrutiny and oversight,” Jones said in a statement. “This legislation is an important step in that direction.”
The bill would exclude strikes in “theaters of conflict” — which really just means Afghanistan, Schiff said. That’s because singling out drone strikes, as opposed to bombings, raids and firefights, is of “less significance in a war zone than in a third country,” he explained.
While the U.S. public broadly supports the use of drones — often seen as a way to kill suspected extremists without risking American casualties — the practice is shockingly unpopular across most of the Muslim world.
But while Obama called in a speech in May 2013 for an overhaul of the law at the core of the “war on terrorism,” lawmakers say there is zero appetite ahead of the 2014 midterm elections for any sweeping changes.
“Drone strikes are sort of a resolved issue on Capitol Hill,” said Micah Zenko, a drone warfare expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I don’t see how this (bill) passes,” Zenko said. “These are CIA operations that are covert by definition. You cannot acknowledge or describe them in any way. I don’t see how they could disclose this.”
Asked about this potential obstacle, Schiff said the bill “doesn’t require identification of any agencies that may be involved, it doesn’t require that specific incidents be identified, only the raw counts at the end of each year.”
Still, he acknowledged, “it’s going to be a tough legislative pathway.”
The human rights group Amnesty International USA endorsed the bill.
“The White House approach to drone killings has been ‘trust us,’ but that’s untenable,” Steven W. Hawkins, its executive director said. “Instead of responding with generalizations to our documentation of potentially unlawful drone killings, the White House needs to provide the data it’s apparently sitting on.”
Zenko, who has underlined the challenges of compiling a complete and accurate toll from targeted killings, says that it’s hard to know how such attacks are affecting people who did not already hate the United States.
“The blowback question is something nobody has a good answer to,” he told Yahoo News by telephone. “It’s hard to prove.”
“In the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) of Pakistan, people hate three things: the Pakistani Army, jihadists living among them and CIA drones,” Zenko said. But “nobody really knows what makes a neutral person become a terrorist.”
The intelligence community has shown little appetite for Schiff’s proposal, which he previewed in a Feb. 4 House Intelligence Committee hearing with CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Schiff asked Brennan whether he could support it. The CIA director said it would be “certainly a worthwhile recommendation” to make but stopped short of endorsing it.
“What we would need to do is to take a look at it analytically and determine whether or not this is something that the U.S. government feels as though would be worthwhile to do,” he said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat on the committee, asked Brennan whether signature strikes might be motivating people to join extremists groups, effectively increasing the threat of attacks on the United States.
“From an intelligence community perspective, we're always evaluating and analyzing developments overseas to include any counterterrorism activity that we might be involved in to see what the impact is,” Brennan replied. "And I think the feeling is that the counterterrorism activities that we have engaged in with our partners — we the U.S. government broadly, both from an intelligence perspective as well as from a military perspective — have greatly mitigated the threat to U.S. persons both overseas as well as in the homeland.”