Becoming the first elected government official to publicly state an estimated number of targets and innocent bystanders killed in US drone attacks overseas, Sen. Lindsey Graham told a local crowd in his home state of South Carolina that "We've killed 4,700."
Speaking to a group of Rotarians at a forum in Easley, South Carolina, Graham responded to a question about drones by saying, "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-Qaeda."
His remarks, reported by the local Easley Patch, included a defense of the use of drones despite their propensity to kill innocent bystanders, including women and children.
“I didn't want him to have a trial,” Graham stated, refering to a US citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in Yemen by a missile from a US drone in 2011.
“We're not fighting a crime, we're fighting a war," Graham said. "I support the president's ability to make a determination as to who an enemy combatant is. It's never been done by judges before. I support the drone program.”
Graham's remarks have since been picked up by national and international media due to the fact that he appears to be the first high-ranking US government official to put an exact number of the number civilians killed by the US practice.
As Al-Jazeera reports:
Several organizations have tried to calculate how many militants and civilians may have been killed in drone strikes since 2004 but have arrived at a wide range of numbers.
The figure cited by Graham matches the high end of a tally by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It says the number killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is between 3,072 and 4,756.
The Washington-based New America Foundation says there have been 350 US drone strikes since 2004, most of them during Barack Obama's presidency. And the foundation estimates the death toll at between 1,963 and 3,293, with 261 to 305 civilians killed.
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US intelligence agencies and the White House have refused to divulge details about the strikes, which are officially termed classified, but officials have suggested that few if any civilians have been killed inadvertently.
The comments by Graham set off speculation about whether or not the senator mistakenly cited official government estimates, and human rights advocates and civil liberty groups would be pleased to discover that such numbers actually exist given the Obama administration's refusal to release any details about the program which was initiated under President Bush but escalated over the course of the current president.
Micah Zenko, credited by many for breaking the story of Graham's comment at his CFR blog, said it's notable that Graham’s publicly stated estimate "nearly matches" the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's.
"Either Graham is a big fan of TBIJ’s work," wrote Zenko, "or perhaps he inadvertently revealed the U.S. government’s body count for nonbattlefield targeted killings."
And Anti-War's John Glaser adds:
It should be noted also that TBIJ, despite their rigorous methodology, was for a long time shunned by a mainstream media that refused to cite their casualty estimates, simply because it recorded the highest ones available. Newspapers and TV typically used the middle-of-the-road estimate, which was New America Foundation. Graham – with his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee – is almost certainly privy to some secret government numbers on drone war casualties. The fact that he might of let it slip here – and the fact that it’s way higher than virtually anybody in the mainstream reports – should be something of a lesson, I think.
Graham also noted in his comments that in addition to his support for the drone war overseas, he supported further use of the technology within the US.
“I don't want to arm them, but we need drones along the border so we can really control illegal immigration,” Graham told his constituents.
*This post was updated to reflect more accurately the content of Graham's remarks.