Brennan advocates more openness for drone casualties

President Barack Obama's pick for CIA director, John Brennan, promised senators who will vote on his nomination more openness about U.S. counter-terrorism programs, as backlash against new U.S. medal for drone pilots grows

Brennan advocates more openness for drone casualties

World Bulletin/News Desk

President Barack Obama's pick for CIA director, John Brennan, promised senators who will vote on his nomination more openness about U.S. counter-terrorism programs, saying the closely guarded number of civilian casualties from drone strikes should be made public, according to his written responses to questions released on Friday.

Brennan was questioned sharply by Democrats and Republicans alike during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination last week.

Along with harsh interrogation techniques, Brennan was questioned about drone strikes against suspects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These strikes have increased under Obama and included the killing in Yemen of a U.S.-born cleric and his U.S.-born son.

The U.S. government, without releasing numbers, has sought to portray civilian deaths from these strikes as minimal. But other organizations which collect data on these attacks put the number of civilians killed in the hundreds.

"I believe that, to the extent that U.S. national security interests can be protected, the U.S. government should make public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al Qaeda," Brennan wrote in response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairwoman.

"In those rare instances in which civilians have been killed" reviews are conducted and, if appropriate, condolence payments are provided to the families, he wrote.

Such casualties from drone strikes have created profound anger among civilian populations overseas and severe tension between the United States and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

During last week's hearing, Feinstein said she had been trying to speak publicly about the "very low number of civilian casualties" and to verify that number each year has "typically been in the single digits." However, she said she was told she could not divulge the actual numbers because they were classified.

The New America Foundation said the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan was 261-305 from 2004 to 2013.

A former intelligence official said the reason for the discrepancy between the U.S. government's apparently lower figures on civilian deaths and those collected by other organizations may be due to what is counted as a civilian death.

The government assumes "military-aged" males in the proximity of a drone strike are combatants unless it finds out otherwise, the former official said.

Asked whether the government could carry out drone strikes inside the United States, Brennan replied: "This administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so."

U.S. legal authorities have not limited the geographic scope to a war zone for using force against al Qaeda and its affiliates, he noted, adding: "This does not mean, however, that we use military force whenever or wherever we want."

The committee's vote on Brennan's nomination has been delayed until after a congressional recess next week.

Backlash against new U.S. medal for drone pilots

Meanwhile, while supporters cheered America's nod to the changing nature of warfare, it has triggered an angry backlash with some veterans and active-duty troops upset over the most substantial shakeup in the hierarchy of military medals since World War Two.

Opponents say the new medal's rank is too high and sends a signal - inadvertently, perhaps - that the Pentagon does not sufficiently value the sacrifices of front-line troops.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which describes itself as America's largest combat veterans' organization, strongly objected to the decision.

Websites and blogs, including the VFW's Facebook page, were filled with angry comments, some calling the new medal a "joke."

Advocates at the Pentagon and beyond say the new medal is playing catch-up with reality.

To put it in context, the Distinguished Warfare Medal is the ninth highest medal awarded by the Pentagon, higher than the Purple Heart for troops wounded in battle.

The new medal is the only combat medal that a military service member can receive without physically being in the same geographic area where combat took place.

Previously, drone pilots who remotely guide missiles against important targets in countries like Pakistan or Yemen would not qualify for combat awards because their acts technically lacked "valor" - a key requirement.

Valor, as defined by the military, involves extraordinary acts of heroism "while engaged in direct combat with an enemy with exposure to enemy hostilities and personal risk."

The new medal is higher than the Bronze Star with a "V" for valor. Only 2.5 percent of the more than 160,000 Bronze Stars awarded by the Army since Sept. 11, 2001, have been for valor, according to Pentagon data.


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