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BROOKE: Congressman Adam Schiff, of California, is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He’s among the chosen few who are briefed on CIA drone strikes -- but he backs the move to the Pentagon, and has proposed an annual reckoning of combatants and civilians killed by drones. Congressman Schiff says the notion that there’s only a “veneer” of oversight is wrong, but there needs to be a public accounting...he said he felt it even more strongly after a meeting a man whose family was killed in a drone strike in Yemen.
SCHIFF: There were a number of individuals who were killed, some it certainly appeared were not the intended targets; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Including a cleric who was preaching against Al Qaeda if the public reports are correct. It really gave a really personal sense what people experience when they come into contact with this as innocent parties.
BROOKE: Now, some in Congress have cited figures that the civilian casualties are really low in drone strikes, especially in the last few years. Maybe even in the single digits. But we also know that any young man within the right age parameters won't be counted as a civilian in many of these strikes, so are you concerned about some of the numbers you're getting?
SCHIFF: Well I am concerned about some of the numbers that we're getting and this is one of the reasons that in the House I've been pushing legislation and Senator feinstein has been doing the same in the Senate, for an annual accounting of how many people are killed, how many combatants, how many non combatants, and importantly how are we defining them.
BROOKE: Two years ago there were reports that the drone program would move entirely to the joint special operations command, JSOC, at the Pentagon. Instead of being split between the CIA and the military as it is now. It didn't happen, what's holding it up?
SCHIFF: Some feel that the defense department may not be as good at it. That they may not be able to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties as well as others might be able to.
BROOKE: I don't quite understand that. They've been doing these operations openly in places where we are at war, right? They're just not doing it in places that we aren't officially at war, like Pakistan and Yemen.
SCHIFF: I'm restricted in what I can speak of because there's only one program, that being the defense department, that is an acknowledged program. I can say that some have taken the view that the defense department is not as good and accurate at counterterrorism operations. i don't think there's evidence to support that. There's also the issue that in some countries, as you mentioned, there may not be a willingness of the host country to allow our defense forces to operate on their soil or in their airspace. they may care about who is conducting the counter-terrorism operations.
BROOKE: Why would it matter to the host government whether its the CIA behind the strike or the Pentagon?
SCHIFF: If they're done by the Pentagon, the Pentagon can't deny them if counterterrorism operations are done by an intelligence element, they are covert, and cannot be acknowledged unless the president makes the decision to acknowledge them.
BROOKE: And so then the host country doesn't have to acknowledge it either, is that it? And so therefore they have some protective cover? It does seem a little dubious to me when the drones are still blowing things up - I mean, that everybody can see.
SCHIFF: Well, I agree with you. I'm not sure that it's a distinction that makes a lot of sense. But nonetheless there are other countries who may have a preference as to whether these operations are done by the defense department or not.
BROOKE: We just spoke to New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, who speculated as to why congress might not want this move. He suggests that one of the reasons could be that then the authority would move from the intelligence committee to the armed services committee. You've got a prominent position on the House Intelligence Committee. Do you buy into the idea that there's any kind of turf war between which committee oversees the dong program?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, it is interesting that in the 9/11 commission recommendations, the set of recommendations that was the least implemented were those dealing with congressional jurisdiction. And there are few things more difficult to win than a turf fight on the hill. I do think that with Senator McCain renewing the push to have the DoD - the defense department - focus on these counter terrorism operations, there is new momentum in favor of having the defense department conduct these counterterrorism operations.
BROOKE: Doesn't the president have the authority to do this any time he wants to?
SCHIFF: Well the president certainly has the authority to decide that he's only going to conduct one kind of counterterrorism operation but if there's strong pushback in the Congress and the Congress holds the purse strings, then the Congress can make the president's life very difficult. And although this has been a priority for the president, we haven't had a sufficient push from the administration to overcome the opposition we've had in the congress. But that might be changing.
BROOKE; Okay so exactly a year ago you introduced the bill the targets lethal force transparency act, to require an annual report on the number of people, combatants and civilians, killed or injured by drones. It looks like there hasn't been any movement on that bill for a year.
SCHIFF: We probably have been given some additional momentum by the tragedy that just took place. The response that we got to that legislation and the pushback we've had is that it would basically tip our hand too much to our adversaries, but I frankly don't get that. As you pointed out earlier, when something comes out from the sky and results in a big explosion, and people are killed, there's no great mystery about it.
BROOKE: Except to the American public, I guess.
SCHIFF: That's the point. We can have a more informed public discussion about this, the more the public knows and if it doesn't compromise our operational requirements, there's no reason not to do it. It allows us to hold ourselves accountable. It requires that there be a clear standard for just who is a civilian and who is not. It requires us to be public and upfront about whether we're increasing our safety or jeopardizing it with the loss of innocent lives. And I also think that while we may have been the first to develop this new weapon, we aren't going to be the last to employ it. And if we want to have any hope that others that use this technology use it responsibly, then we have to show the highest example.
BROOKE; Alright. Thank you very much.
SCHIFF: You bet.
BROOKE: Representative Adam Schiff is the top Democrat of the intelligence committee. He represents California's 28th District in LA county.