A critical look at US drone attacks is not the kind of thing you expect to see on a Sunday chat show, but that is what NBC's Meet the Press gave viewers on December 14. Still, there were some problems.
Anchor Chuck Todd explained at the beginning that Barack Obama's foreign policy has been drone-dependent:
While he has gradually withdrawn US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, he has rapidly escalated America's drone war. It's a highly controversial tactic aimed at taking out terrorist targets without military casualties. But critics argue that it's killed thousands of innocent civilians in countries like Yemen and Pakistan.
This is somewhat misleading; Obama's Afghan policy involved a rapid escalation of US troops.
The report turned to NBC correspondent Richard Engel, who tells viewers that "some are asking whether years from now we'll debate drones the way we're debating torture."
To which one might ask, "Why wait?"
The CIA's clandestine fleet of armed drones has become central to its counterterrorism mission. The secretive nature of the program means no one can tell for sure how many of the estimated 3,500 people killed mostly in Pakistan and Yemen were insurgents and how many were innocent civilians.
It's true that the drone program is secretive. But there are no wars where one can tell "for sure" how many civilians were killed. And there are several efforts to identify the victims of US drone attacks, so it is possible to give viewers a sense of how many innocents have been killed.
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The expert NBC relies on, Micah Zenko, wrote a piece recently (Politics, Power and Preventive Action, 11/21/14) that tried to pull together different studies of US drone strikes to answer this question. The answer? Around 473 as of last month, based on an average of three studies.
There are bound to be disagreements about the data; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for instance, counts 688 civilians killed in Pakistan (more accurately, between 416 and 959); the other counts are lower. But this is not unusual, and doubt about the precise total should not be used as an excuse to say the tally cannot be known.
Parts of the report are surprisingly blunt–like when Engel says, "There is nothing antiseptic about a missile that hits a village." And a follow-up discussion with anchor Chuck Todd started off by talking about how torture and drone strikes create more terrorism, and an explanation of "signature strikes"– i.e., attacks based not on specific intelligence but on whether a potential target is exhibiting behavior that makes people watching them from thousands of miles away suspicious.
It is the kind of conversation we don't often see on US television–but it was hard not to notice the limits.
Near the end of the piece, Todd explains:
This is where we're going to find out 10 years from now– we could be finding out we droned innocents.
Why would this take 10 years? The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is not waiting–you can go to their Naming the Dead website and read their reporting about US drone strikes in Pakistan.
And one of the most widely discussed drone attacks in Yemen was the one that killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American and son of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The younger Awlaki was not targeted for an attack, but appears to have been an innocent victim of a strike intended to kill someone else (Think Progress, 5/23/13).
There's no need, in other words, to wait a decade to "find out" US drones have killed innocents–we already know they have, most likely several hundred of them.