By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Intelligence Committee has quietly approved a plan to step up both public and internal government oversight of the use of armed drones to kill suspected militants overseas, including American citizens.
The committee voted in closed session earlier this week to approve legislative language that would require U.S. spy agencies to make public statistics on how many people were killed or injured in missile strikes launched from U.S.-operated drones.
The committee also approved language intended to bolster scrutiny of secret spy agency deliberations over decisions about targeting U.S. citizens or residents for lethal drone strikes overseas.
The Obama administration has been under heavy pressure from foreign governments, the United Nations and human rights groups to be more transparent and rigorous in accounting for the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes.
Though the committee did not release full details of its deliberations on the measures, sources familiar with the discussions said that some committee Republicans were opposed to the drone-related clauses in the bill, which would authorize intelligence activities for the current government fiscal year which began on October 1.
Ultimately, according to a press release issued by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the intelligence panel, the committee approved the bill by a vote of 13-2. The two senators who voted against it were Republicans, a congressional source said.
The press release makes no mention of the language in the bill about drones. An official familiar with the matter said that this was because some Republicans argued that, since drone attacks are officially covert actions by the U.S. government, it would be inappropriate to set rules for such operations in a public law.
The Obama administration drastically increased the number of drone strikes after it took office in 2009 but attacks have dropped off in the last year.
Pakistan's North Waziristan is the area of the most intensive U.S. drone campaign in the world. The United States has also attacked militants in Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia with drones.
Last month, Pakistan told the United Nations that at least 400 civilians were among the approximately 2,200 people killed by drone strikes in the past decade.
The bill approved by the committee now must go before the full Senate. The House of Representatives would also have to approve the bill, and the president sign it, for it to become law.
If the language approved by the committee becomes law, once a year the president would be obliged to issue a report setting out the total number of combatants killed or injured in U.S. drone strikes abroad, as well as the number of "non-combatant civilians."
Exempted from the report would be any drone strikes that were launched in Afghanistan before the end of U.S. combat operations there, which are due to conclude at the end of next year, and any drone strikes conducted in a war explicitly authorized by Congress.
An official familiar with the matter said that Feinstein had been trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade the administration of President Barack Obama to release such information voluntarily.
Administration officials have maintained privately that the numbers of non-combatant civilians killed or injured in U.S. drone strikes against militants have been relatively minimal - in the low dozens. By contrast, respected human rights groups have produced much larger totals.
The bill also would require the director of national intelligence, when considering whether a U.S. citizen or resident should be targeted for a drone strike overseas, to empower a so-called red team to conduct an "independent alternative analysis" of the intelligence that officials have put forward to justify the drone attack.
A second official familiar with this issue said intelligence agencies already follow a secret procedure similar to this, but that the bill would give this procedure more weight.
As far as is publicly known, only one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a militant preacher who allegedly became involved in plotting attacks against U.S. targets while a leader of al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate, was ever formally targeted by the United States for a lethal drone attack, though at least a handful of other Americans, including Awlaki's teenage son, were also reportedly killed by drones.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Eric Beech)