Report: Sen. Graham puts drone death toll at 4,700

“We've killed 4,700 [and] 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-Qaeda," the South Carolina Republican said during Wednesday speech at the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, South Carolina, reports the Easley affiliate of Patch.com. 

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The CIA and Pentagon have yet to publicly disclose the actual casualty count from U.S. armed drone operations, keeping those figures under wraps for much of the program's existence. 

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. 

But Graham's comments on the growing number of casualties resulting from drone strikes comes as the White House and Congress continue to battle over the administrations increasingly aggressive use of the controversial counterterrorism tactic. 

The issue came to a head earlier this month, during the Senate confirmation hearing of White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who has been tapped to head up CIA. 

Days before the hearing, a confidential Department of Justice memorandum was leaked to the press, defending the administration's right to carry out armed drone strikes against suspected terrorists, even those who happen to be American citizens. 

During the hearing, Brennan defended the tactic as the safest and most effective way to eliminate terrorist threats without putting U.S. service members in harm's way. 

That said, the nominee did tell members of the Senate intelligence committee that CIA and the intelligence community should be more forthcoming about casualties resulting from armed drone operations. 

Graham also defended the use of armed drones by American military and intelligence officials during Wednesday's speech, saying the unmanned aircraft have been a critical asset in the ongoing effort to quash al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

“It's a weapon that needs to be used,” he said Wednesday. Further, Graham balked at Democrat-led efforts in Congress to establish a new federal court to oversee the use of armed drones against suspected terrorist targets. 

Graham was one of several Senate Republicans to slam the notion of a new drone court, whose authorities would be patterned after the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA). 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate intelligence committee, proposed the idea of a FISA-like court for drones earlier this month. Democrats on the Senate judiciary panel plan to hold hearings on the idea later this year. 

But Graham, along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), all noted oversight authority over armed drone operations, patterned after FISA, would not result in the type of transparency into the program lawmakers are looking for.