Transcript: Peter Bergen’s testimony on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony by Peter Bergen, Director of National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, on the “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counter-Terrorism Implications of Targeted Killing”. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing was held on April 23, 2013:

…We at the New America Foundation basically have been collecting data on CIA drone strikes for the past three or four years. And I’m not a lawyer so my presentation will really be about what has been happening in the drone program.

And here are some of the sort of main points:

Under President Obama, there’s been 307 drone strikes in Pakistan. That’s six times more than President Bush did in his two terms in office. The total number of deaths in Pakistan we can calculate somewhere between 2,000 to 3,300 roughly.

The drone program in Pakistan has changed in 2010. There were 122 drone strikes. Over time it’s decreased, and that’s for a series of reasons. There’s been a significant push back from the State Department about are we losing the wider war in Pakistan. In a sense, if the price of a successful drone program is angering 180 million Pakistanis – one of the largest countries in the world, a country of nuclear weapons – that’s quite a large price to pay.

And I think there’s been a more discriminating program in Pakistan as a result of this discussion.

The CIA still has this sort of an ability to more or less override State Department objections but I think a large discussion has been won by the State Department.

Also as the increasing congressional oversight, there’s more public discussion as there is in this forum…

Supreme Court Justice [Louis] Brandeis long time ago said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and I’m really thankful that we’re having this public discussion.

And so there are a whole series of reasons the CIA drone base in Balochistan was closed. There were probably fewer targets in the tribal regions as to actually kill. And so you’ve seen a decline in Pakistan.

But at the same time – and we’ll hear from the witness to my left in a minute about the drone program in Yemen.

There was only one drone strike in Yemen under President George W. Bush. There were 46 last year under President Obama. We calculate there were somewhere between 467 to 674 casualties. All but six of those took place under President Obama.

Who are the targets? As Professor Somin indicated, militant leaders are not really being killed in any great number. We calculate that only 2 percent of the total number of casualties are actually people you could really term leaders. And so that’s an interesting development.

What was initially started, I think, as a program that would target high-level members of Al Qaeda has in a sense devolved, particularly in Pakistan, into a counter-insurgency air force. And you know, you could say that’s a good thing or a bad thing but it’s a fact that that is happening.

Where are the targets in Pakistan? They’re overwhelmingly in North Waziristan for obvious reasons. That’s where the Al Qaeda networks are basically located.

What is the civilian casualty rate? We have found that it’s declined very significantly over time. Initially in sort of the 2006, it was almost 100%. Now today, confirmed civilian casualties we calculate about 2%. We also add an unknown category of 9% because sometimes it’s not clear if somebody is a civilian or a militant. After all, everybody dresses the same, and if somebody is referred to in a press account as tribesman could either be a Taliban or a civilian.

But we are finding a very significant decrease in the number of civilian casualties. There are all sorts of reasons for that, I think. One is drones are persistent…as Colonel [Martha] McSally has pointed out. There is smaller payloads. There’s better intelligence. President Obama, I think, has taken a more direct role in adjudicating potential strikes where there might be a civilian casualty. So we’ve seen a very strong drop but there are still civilian casualties.

And we are not the only group that looks at this issue. There is the Long War Journal and the London-based Journal for Investigative Journalism. But we’re all finding roughly the same thing that the civilian casualty rate in 2012 is quite low.

And Ken Anderson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, on this issue, went to Pakistan recently, had a very interesting discussion with Pakistani lawmakers and officials. They said to him that there were 400 civilian casualties in Pakistan, which is pretty close to the numbers that we actually think is correct and this is the first sort of official acknowledgement in Pakistan, at least on background, that the civilian casualty rate is much lower than presented in the Pakistani press.

What impact is this having on Al Qaeda and the Taliban? The best witness for the impact on Al Qaeda is Osama bin Laden himself. In the documents recovered in Abbottabad, he was very concerned about the drone program, the amount of damage it was inflicting on his group. He was suggesting that Al Qaeda should de-camp to Kunar or eastern Afghanistan where it’s heavily forested, mountainous, and hard for American drones to sort of see what’s going on. He even suggested his son should move to Qatar – the richest and one of the safest countries in the world – away from the tribal region.

…It is having an impact, and just to reinforce what Rosa Brooks said the precedents we’re setting clearly are worrisome potentially. 70 countries have drones; 3 of them have armed drones that we know of. It’s very – the Chinese are very close to being able to arm their drones. You could easily imagine a situation where China deploys drones against Uighur separatists using essentially the same rationale that we have used against Al Qaeda or the Taliban who we deem to be terrorists.

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3 Comments on “Transcript: Peter Bergen’s testimony on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

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