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Sen. Graham Says 4,700 Killed In U.S. Drone Strikes

U.S. "Predator" drone over  Afghanistan in Jan. 2009.
Joel Saget
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. "Predator" drone over Afghanistan in Jan. 2009.

We've all heard that drone strikes directed against al-Qaida and other militants have been on the rise, but now Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has put a number on deaths by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle: 4,700.

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rattled off the death toll during a talk he gave to the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, S.C., Tuesday afternoon.

"We've killed 4,700," Graham said.

"Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we're at war, and we've taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida," he added.

But as The Hill notes, the CIA and Pentagon have yet to publicly disclose the actual casualty count from U.S. armed drone operations:

Unofficial casualty estimates stemming from armed drone operations have put the death toll at between 1,900 to 3,200. Most of those strikes have taken place in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Mideast and North Africa.

However, Graham's spokesman Kevin Bishop told The Hill on Wednesday the senator was not quoting actual casualty figures provided by DOD or Langley, but citing independent analysis of the program.

According to Micah Zenko, who has written extensively about the use of drones for the Center on Foreign Relations, Graham's figure is far higher than the average found in the publicly available literature.

Zenko says Graham's figure is near the high end of a range reported by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. TBIJ believes the number of killed in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia in the period 2002-2013 is somewhere between 3,072 and 4,756.

Graham's remarks come as the White House has been under renewed scrutiny for the drone program as the Senate holds confirmation hearings on John Brennan, President Obama's pick to be the next CIA director.

On Tuesday, The Associated Press, citing a United Nations report, said the number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan had shot up 72 percent and that they had also become more deadly in 2012, even as the number of civilian deaths had decreased.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.