4,700: That’s How Many People One Senator Says We’ve Killed Via Drones

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) spoke to the press during a news conference on the terror attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi February 14. Graham recently unveiled a number of people killed by drones but later clarified it was based on estimates reported on by the media, not an official government number. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The government is relatively silent about the number of people — especially civilians — who have been killed in U.S. led drone strikes. But for the first time a public lawmaker has given a number: 4,700.

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaking with the Easley Rotary Club in South Carolina said “we’ve killed 4,700.”

“Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda,” the local Patch reported Graham saying Tuesday afternoon.

Although a government official might not have publicly stated a number in the same manner as Graham before, there have been estimates by other groups. ProPublica tracking “everything we know so far about drone strikes” wrote that while “the precise number isn’t known, but some estimates peg the total around 3,000.” CNN reported its terrorism expert Peter Bergen putting the number between 1,900 and 3,300. It also noted  the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimating about 4,756 deaths from drone strikes have occurred worldwide.

Graham clarified to CNN though that his estimate was based on media reports, like those mentioned above, not U.S. intelligence.

Here’s more from Graham’s speech from the Patch:

“It’s a weapon that needs to be used,” Graham said. “It’s a tactical weapon. A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle that is now armed.”

The Pakistan/Afghanistan border is “very hard to get to,” he said.

“We don’t have any troops in that area,” he said. “So that’s where Al-Qaeda and terrorists groups like the Akani Network and Al-Shabaab are residing, very remote regions. These drones can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and we can monitor people’s movement on the grounds.”

He said the idea of judicial oversight of drone strikes and targets is “crazy to me.”

“I can’t imagine in World War for Roosevelt to have gone to a bunch of judges and said, ‘I need your permission before we can attack the enemy,’” Graham said.

He said the drone program “has been very effective.”

Wired’s Danger Room reported that it considered the figure given by Graham “very high” and “low” depending on context. It noted that the CIA declined to comment on whether the information given was classified. Here’s more of an explanation from Wired:

But that’s a very high figure — at least as it pertains to the CIA’s drone strikes, outside the declared battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is what the context of Graham’s remarks make it seem like he’s referring to. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations blogs, that’s on the highest end of the drone-death estimate compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from publicly available news reports. Zenko’s compilation of the averages of non-governmental organizations’ guesstimates for drone casualties is about 1,700 people lower.


Yet Graham’s count is simultaneously low. Judging from the context of his remarks, he’s evidently not counting the U.S. military’s drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the real number of deaths from the strikes between the covert CIA drone program and the U.S. military’s still rarely acknowledged efforts is likely even higher.

Even if this drone death toll was based on estimates reported about by the media, if nothing else Wired noted that Graham’s comments “underscores the extraordinary secrecy around the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.”

“Whatever Graham’s intentions in stating a death toll — regardless of its accuracy — that secrecy is the most prominent, visible fact about the drones,” Wired stated.”

Read more of Sen. Graham’s comments to the rotary club here.