During the confirmation hearing for CIA director John Brennan, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein said the number of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes each year has “typically been in the single digits.”
“We only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances,” Mr. Brennan said in a speech at the Wilson Center last April (at which time he was the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism official). “It is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.”
Under the circumstances, that’s difficult to prove. And as Natasha Lennard points out in Salon, “the very question of how the administration categorizes ‘civilian’ or ‘enemy combatant’ is in itself contentious.” It has been reported that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent evidence which later shows them to have been innocent bystanders.
But that low-number assertion by Sen. Feinstein, Mr. Brennan, and others has been challenged by independent reports indicating much larger numbers of civilian casualties due to “targeted killings” by drones.