Criticism of the Obama administration’s drone program has heated up in recent weeks after the New York Times published a lengthy article highlighting some of its troubling aspects, particularly how and why suspected terrorists are targeted and the methods to which civilian casualties are documented. While many have since called for increased oversight of the program, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Congress has been in the loop for more than two years:
The regular review of some of the most closely held [drone strike] video in the CIA’s possession is part of a marked increase in congressional attention paid to the agency’s targeted killing program over the last three years. The oversight, which has not previously been detailed, began largely at the instigation of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials said.
The lawmakers and aides with the intelligence oversight committees have a level of access shared only by President Obama, his top aides and a small number of CIA officials.
In addition to watching video, the legislative aides review intelligence that was used to justify each drone strike. They also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA’s assessment of who was hit.
In response to a Los Angeles Times piece questioning the drone program, Feinstein wrote the paper saying top intelligence officials in Congress “receive notification with key details shortly after every strike,” adding:
“Committee staff has held 28 monthly in-depth oversight meetings to review strike records and question every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that “the drone program is under far more scrutiny than in the past” and participants in the congressional briefings “say their review has made the CIA more careful.” “I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything that we thought was inappropriate,” one senior intelligence committee staff member said.
A New America Foundation analysis found a 17 percent “non-militant fatality rate” in drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan since 2004 and ProPublica recently reported that the administration’s claims on civilian casualties “do not add up.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has seen the drone strike videos and told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t convinced that every person killed has been a militant but added, “If the American people were sitting in the room, they would feel comfortable that it was being done in a responsible way.”