February 11, 2013

(S.S. Mirza/Getty Images)

The CIA should celebrate the statements of National Review editor Rich Lowry this morning on Fox News. The topic was drone warfare and its human cost. In a panel discussion with fellow Fox News contributor and Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers, Lowry appeared to place a great deal of trust in the aim of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Depending on the terminology you choose, the drones have claimed their share of “civilians” or “innocents” or “collateral damage,” coinages that Powers repudiated. She showed the temerity of expressing compassion for this category of drone victims:

Powers: “These are people who have done nothing wrong who are being blown into pieces by American drones…”

Lowry: “Are you saying as a blanket matter all these people targeted by the drones have done nothing wrong?”

Powers: “The innocent people, the collateral damage are innocent.”

Lowry: “If you’re in Yemen, stay away from Al Qaeda operatives. Don’t drive in cars with them. Don’t hang around in houses with them.”

Quite an assertion right there. It’s as if Lowry’s saying that all the folks who’ve been killed by drone strikes are sufficiently simpatico with Al Qaeda to share quarters with them. A raging rebuttal to Lowry’s supposition came in the pages of the New York Times last week. The lede of a story on the nomination of John O. Brennan to be CIA director carried this captivating anecdote about a drone attack:

SANA, Yemen — Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen.

It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.

As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.

Too bad Jaber didn’t live long enough to hear Lowry’s counsel.

When outfits like the New America Foundation – which tracks the drone war’s human impact — speak of “civilian casualties” associated with the targeted killing campaign, they’re talking about non-militants, non-combatants. Or, yes, “people who have done nothing wrong,” to repeat Powers’s words.

Since 2004, “350 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,963 to 3,293 people,” reports New America. Of those, militants comprised 1,533 to 2,658, it notes. Other groups that monitor the targeted killing campaign produce quite different numbers. A 2012 report by Stanford Law School NYU School of Law reported:

The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through midSeptember 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.