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Testimony presented before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights


The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing
April 24, 2013 |

The CIA drone program began quietly under President George W. Bush with one strike in Yemen in 2002, and then a smattering of strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007 before a more sustained campaign in 2008. During his two terms in office, Bush authorized a total of 48 strikes in Pakistan.

Upon taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama almost immediately made drones one of his key national security tools. By mid-April 2013, he had already authorized 307 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number of strikes carried out during President Bush's entire eight years in office. Under Obama, the drone program accelerated from an average of one strike every 40 days to one every 4 days by mid-2011.

Using reports from a variety of reliable news outlets, the New America Foundation—a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.—has calculated that some 2,003 to 3,321 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and mid-April 2013. At this point, the number of estimated deaths from the Obama administration's drone strikes in Pakistan—somewhere between 1,614 and 2,765—is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration.[i] Interestingly, the lowest estimate of deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama is around double the total number of detainees sent to Guantanamo by Bush.


The year 2010, with a record 122 strikes in Pakistan, marked the most intense period of the Obama drone campaign in Pakistan. This, combined with the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike in November 2011, severely damaged the relationship between the United States and Pakistan and resulted in the eviction of CIA-controlled drones from Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan.[ii] At the same time, Cameron Munter, the then-U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, was urging that there be more judicious targeting of the drone strikes as well as increased consultation with the Pakistanis about them.[iii]

Some combination of U.S. Department of State pushback, increased congressional oversight, the closure of the CIA drone base in Pakistan (and, perhaps, a declining number of targets in the tribal regions), and a greater desire to heed Pakistani sensitivities about drone attacks led to a sharp fall in the number of strikes in 2011. The number of drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011 fell by 40 percent from the record number of strikes in 2010.

Meanwhile in Yemen, after the first attack in 2002, there were no reported drone strikes until President Obama took office in 2009. Obama vastly accelerated the drone campaign in Yemen, particularly in 2011 and 2012, just as drone strikes in Pakistan began to slow. At least 46 strikes took place in Yemen in 2012, marking the first time the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan reached comparable levels. As of mid-April 2013, U.S. drone and air strikes have killed an estimated 467 to 674 people in Yemen, all but six of whom were killed under Obama.

To what extent has the tactic of using drone strikes overwhelmed the broader strategic objectives of the United States?