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Rand Paul filibuster: What about civilian drone casualties in Pakistan?

Sen. Rand Paul filibustered over the hypothetical drone targeting of American civilians on US soil. But critics say hundreds of other civilians already are being killed in US drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere.

By Staff writer / March 9, 2013

People walk on the wreckage of a house destroyed by an air strike last year that was targeting al Qaeda-linked militants, in the southern Yemeni town of Jaar. U.S. drones have launched almost daily raids on suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen, and air strikes have aggravated discontent among Yemenis, who say the strikes pose a threat to civilians.

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

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Senator Rand Paul dominated the news this week with his 13-hour filibuster about the potential for armed drone aircraft dropping their deadly payloads on Americans here in the United States.

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It was a hypothetical scenario designed to pressure the Obama administration into acknowledging that noncombatant US civilians – however much they might be suspected terrorists – would not be targeted while walking down the street or sitting in a café, that the president does not have the constitutional authority to do that.

Not so hypothetical is the issue of hundreds of other noncombatant civilians – women, children, and old men, mainly in Pakistan – ending up as collateral damage in US drone attacks aimed at those believed to be terrorists connected with Al Qaeda.

US officials acknowledge that there have been some incidents in which civilians were killed as the result of drone strikes, but the impression left is that there are few such civilian deaths.

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.

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