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New bill would force Obama administration to reveal drone strike casualties

New bill would force Obama administration to reveal drone strike casualties

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Two members of Congress have introduced a bill that they hope will force the White House to disclose how many people a year are killed by drones. Today, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) announced the Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act, which would mandate an annual report of everyone killed or injured in strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. It would take effect retroactively, requiring the Obama administration to produce data for the last five years in the interest of tracking trends.

For years, the American targeted killing program has taken place under cover of secrecy, although leaked documents and external reporting have provided details about drone strike casualties. Debate has often focused on the killing of American citizens, particularly the 16-year-old son of alleged top al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, who was not specifically targeted but died in a 2011 strike. Since 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki is the only known citizen known to have been killed intentionally, although officials are reportedly debating whether to authorize the killing of another American member of al-Qaeda. But the overall cost of the targeted killing program is much higher. In 2013, a Council on Foreign Relations report estimates, 253 people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan, 31 of them civilians. A total of several thousand casualties are estimated since the program began in 2004, around 500 of them civilians.

In mid-2013, President Obama promised to establish tighter accountability for drone strikes, creating clearer guidelines for when lethal force could be used. But officials have justified secrecy on the grounds that more public information is more hints for America's enemies. A plan to shift operations from the CIA to the less covert Department of Defense fizzled late last year. In order to allay concerns, Schiff and Jones' bill explicitly excludes strikes that took place in Afghanistan and other active conflict zones. "We're just asking for raw numbers — not where the strikes took place or when," Schiff tells The Washington Post. "This would give very little to our adversaries. In fact, to the degree that it helps debunk their propaganda — every time there is a drone strike it's at a wedding - it would be useful for us to be more public. This would allow us to hold ourselves accountable."

Update April 2nd, 4:00PM: A copy of the bill text is available here.