Why Not Have a Hearing on Civilian Drone Casualties?

Yesterday, I suggested that Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger’s certainty that public accounts of drone casualties are overstated may say more about our failed intelligence oversight than it does about the number of civilians who have died in our drone strikes.

Later yesterday, Steven Aftergood posted a must read reflection on how our intelligence oversight has backed off public accountability. I’ll have more to say about Aftergood’s post, but for the moment I wanted to look at a measure of public accountability he uses: the number of public oversight hearings, particularly those with outside experts.

Over the past decade, however, the Committee’s priorities appear to have changed, to the detriment of public accountability.  In fact, despite the Committee’s assurance in its annual reports, public disclosure even of the Committee’s own oversight activities has decreased.

In 2012, the Committee held only one public hearing, despite the prevalence of intelligence-related public controversies.  That is the smallest number of public hearings the Committee has held in at least 25 years and possibly ever.  A non-governmental witness has not been invited to testify at an open Committee hearing since 2007.

Breaking! Under Dianne Feinstein’s leadership, the Senate Intelligence Committee has had its fewest public hearings in at least 25 years!

Aftergood’s point, though, suggests one remedy for the problem with Mike Rogers’ boasting (or more lucrative assurances from DiFi that her oversight is all we need on drone strikes).

Why not have a public hearing at which the major contributors to the discussion of drone casualties testify in the same place?

The Intelligence Committees could invite both The Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the AP to explain how they conducted independent assessments of civilian casualties and what those assessments showed. They could invite Peter Bergen to explain his dubious numbers publicly (at one point, after all, Bergen actually knew as much about Osama bin Laden as the people hunting him in secret).  They could invite Pepperdine professor Gregory Neal–who has a paper saying that when the government uses its collateral damage estimation process, it does a remarkably good job at keeping collateral damage low, but admits that “due to the realities of combat operations, the process cannot always be followed.” Hell, they could even invite John Brennan to lie publicly about civilian casualties, as he has done in the past. Maybe, too, Brennan can explain how all militant age men are treated and counted, by default, as militants.

The point is there is a partial remedy to the grave problems with the cognitive challenges overseers like Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein face. One of those is to publicly accept the testimony of those who have different investments than the intelligence community.

Right now, continuing to rest the drone program’s legitimacy on repeated public calls to “trust me” actually undermines its legitimacy.

Sadly, resting our national security policy on repeated “trust mes” appears to be what Rogers and Feinstein like.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    If they had a hearing, we might actually find out how little they know of what’s going on. And how often they lie about it.

  2. What Constitution says:

    From a read of yesterday’s “NYT drone FOIA” opinion, it seems clear enough that so long as nobody from the government says anything (1) under oath or (2) intelligible (and I’m not so sure about (1)), they can do whatever they damn well please without having to explain themselves. So no, I don’t expect any “hearings” on this. They should be held, of course, but we’ll have to figure out a way to get Senators to, oh, respect the Constitution before that’s going to happen. “Asking nicely” via established principles like “principles of an informed electorate” found in a “democracy” clearly doesn’t cut it any more.

    This kind of thing (public accountability) is really, really coming to look like a job for Anonymous or Wikileaks — wasn’t it Shepard Smith at Fox who credited Wikileaks with the “only accurate information we get any more” over a year ago? Maybe if we passed a hat and created a “Hero Leaker” award/defense fund, we could find out how our President purports to claim the right unilaterally to assassinate U.S. citizens?

  3. Brindle says:

    US Intel Black Budget could be as much as $120 billion.

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/02/pentagons-black-budget/

    “Though to put it in perspective, the Pentagon is still spending more on classified projects than most nations spend on their entire military forces in year. And that’s just the beginning.

    The budget for the Military Intelligence Program was released this week, adding another $19.2 billion — down from a record $27 billion in 2010.

    That also doesn’t include the budget for the National Intelligence Program, which oversees spy agencies like the CIA. Their budget hasn’t been released yet but prior budgets have shown it to hover in the $50 billion range.
    So we could be talking about $120 billion or more in black accounts.”

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