The most ardent case against drone strikes is that they kill innocents. John Brennan has argued that claims of collateral carnage are exaggerated. In June 2011, he famously declared that there had not been “a single collateral death” due to a drone strike in the previous 12 months.
Almost no one believes this. Brennan himself later amended his statement, saying that in the previous 12 months, the United States had found no “credible evidence” that any civilians had been killed in drone strikes outside Afghanistan and Iraq. (I am using the word civilians here to mean “noncombatants.”) A fair interpretation is that drones unfailingly hit their targets, and so long as the U.S. government believes its targets are all legitimate, the collateral damage is zero. But drones are only as accurate as the intelligence that guides them. Even if the machine is perfect, it’s a stretch to assume perfection in those who aim it.
For one thing, our military and intelligence agencies generously define combatant to include any military-age male in the strike zone. And local press accounts from many of the blast sites have reported dead women and children. Some of that may be propaganda, but not all of it is. No matter how precisely placed, when a 500-pound bomb or a Hellfire missile explodes, there are sometimes going to be unintended victims in the vicinity.