HPSCI Rejects Drone Reporting Requirements in Intel Authorization Act

As Sarah Knuckey covered earlier this month in a post here on Just Security, the Senate Intelligence Committee included in the 2014 intelligence authorization bill requirements that the President publicly disclose information on civilians killed in drone attacks by the United States.  In a post last week, I noted that the pubic reporting requirements arguably raised constitutional and practical concerns that could frustrate the efforts for greater transparency on the drone program, and I expressed concern that the provisions may not make it into the final bill.   And as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) has now finished its mark-up of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (H.R. 3381), it looks as if my skepticism may turn out to be correct.

Yesterday, HPSCI voted to approve the House version of the Intelligence Authorization Act.  Notably absent from the House version of the bill were any provisions requiring public disclosure of the number of civilians killed by the U.S. drone program.  Indeed, Rep. Adam Schiff proposed an amendment to include reporting language similar to what is found in the Senate’s version, but his proposal was rejected by the full committee.

Rep. Schiff’s office released a statement on his proposed amendment that stated:

“The production of this report will require minimal resources, but will provide a modest but important measure of transparency and oversight. It will help to fulfill the promises made by the President in his May 2013 speech at the National Defense University. As the President articulated, when we order a drone strike, ‘there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.’ Never the less despite our best efforts these strikes unfortunately do result in civilian casualties and the death of innocents who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps that is unavoidable and simply the nature of fighting the enemy we confront, an enemy that places no value on civilian life. But what we can do is be accountable and transparent, both with ourselves and with the world. And as the President pointed out in his NDU speech, ‘There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports.’ This amendment would help narrow that gap.”

Nevertheless, the Schiff amendment met resistance from a large majority of HPSCI (the amendment failed by a vote of 15-5), including several Democrats.  Reuters reports that Congressional Republicans, in particular, have resisted the reporting requirements and

“privately have argued that making such casualty totals public is a bad idea because at present, U.S. drone strikes against militants overseas are largely conducted as ‘covert actions’ under intelligence-related legal authorizations.”

Of course, HPSCI’s rejection of the drone reporting requirements does not mean the fate of these provisions has been decided.  The full House must still consider the legislation, and during debate, amendments to include the disclosure requirements could be proposed.  Furthermore, the final bill that comes out of conference with the Senate may include the requirements.  And Rep. Schiff has stated he plans to continue to fight for the reforms, so debate of the issue certainly isn’t over.  However, HPSCI’s rejection yesterday of the disclosure requirements is an unwelcome development for those calling for greater transparency of the drone program. 

About the Author(s)

Thomas Earnest

Former Managing Editor of Just Security (2013-14) Follow him on Twitter (@thomasdearnest).