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Why Can’t We Even Say How Many We Have Killed?

On Monday, Just Security marked the ten-year anniversary of the disclosure of the Abu Ghraib scandal with a pair of eloquent posts by David Luban (Part 1 and Part 2).  The Senate chose to mark the occasion a bit differently.  That day, it dropped a provision of the defense authorization bill that would have required the administration to report on the numbers of persons it kills in drone strikes.  At the New York Review of Books blog, I have written about the irony of what President Barack Obama calls “the most transparent administration in history” being unwilling even to account for the numbers of people we have killed.  Why, I ask, can’t we even say how many human beings we have killed?

The administration has offered no explanation for its opposition to the minimal reporting requirement that it successfully quashed.  But surely when one is refusing to provide even the most basic information about the fundamental and profound act of taking a human life, the burden should be on the government at least to explain why it can’t tell.  In May 2013, in conjunction with Obama’s speech on national security at the National Defense University, the administration admitted for the first time that it had killed anyone with a drone.  The day before the speech, it acknowledged that it had killed four Americans – one targeted, and three as “collateral damage” in attacks aimed at others.  President Obama said he disclosed this fact “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue.”  But according to credible reports, Obama has overseen the targeted killing of thousands.  Why is transparency and debate only warranted when we take the life of an American citizen, and not when we take the life of a Pakistani, a Yemeni, or someone else?

In the past, and off the record, government officials have justified the secrecy surrounding the drone program on the fact that countries like Yemen and Pakistan agreed to our use of drones in their territories only on the condition that we not admit that we were doing so.  That excuse never seemed acceptable to me; isn’t it likely that the condition is imposed precisely because the governments could not admit to their citizens that they had given another sovereign such authority?  But whatever its validity at one point, it is no longer an available argument. As I note in the New York Review blog, both Pakistan and Yemen have now acknowledged what had become one of the world’s worst kept secrets – namely, that they had agreed to US drone strikes in their borders.  If Yemen and Pakistan can admit it, why can’t we even tell the public how many people we have killed?

The Abu Ghraib scandal showed that even transparency does not guarantee accountability.  But it is surely a necessary element, even if not sufficient. If this is indeed “the most transparent administration in history,” it should of its own accord provide the disclosures the Senate was seeking, not fight to keep even the number of people we kill a secret.

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About the Author

is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Follow him on twitter @DavidColeGtown