Collins defends vote against drone civilian casualty reporting

Sen. Susan Collins
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Sen. Susan Collins
Posted Nov. 27, 2013, at 3:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Sen. Susan Collins’ vote against an amendment to an intelligence budget bill that would require the U.S. to tally and report civilian casualties in drone strikes has caught the attention of a national blogger who argues Collins’ early vote could put the entire 2014 Senate Intelligence Authorization Act at risk.

The vote could prove to be a campaign issue that Shenna Bellows, Collins’ likely Democratic opponent in the 2014 election, will use against the Republican, who is expected to seek re-election to a fourth term.

John Nichols, a liberal blogger for The Nation, argued in a post on Monday that Collins’ opposition to the amendment could cause other Republicans in the Senate to oppose the bill. Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins, said that Nichols twisted the facts and ignored that for the past three years, the Intelligence Authorization Act has passed through the Senate unanimously and is expected to do the same for 2014.

“Susan Collins is supposed to be the last reasonable Republican in the Senate,” wrote Nichols, referring to Collins’ identity as politically moderate. “The pair of New England Republicans with whom she had aligned in something of a regional caucus — fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown of Massachusetts — are gone. So, elite media outlets frequently remind us, it’s up to Collins.”

At issue is Collins’ vote against an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act that would require the U.S. to disclose civilian casualties in overseas drone strikes that are carried out by unmanned aircraft. Besides general transparency, the amendment is seen by some in Congress as an effort to counter arguments in other countries that civilian casualties are much higher than internal U.S. estimates.

Kelley said that despite her opposition to the amendment, Collins eventually voted with two other Republicans in favor of the overall bill, which left the committee with bipartisan 11-4 support. That hasn’t stopped Nichols and liberal organizations such as MoveOn.org, which has a petition ongoing against Collins’ stance on drone casualty reporting, from criticizing her.

“Providing effective accountability and oversight of the Obama administration’s use of drones is clearly a priority for Sen. Collins as anyone who has followed this debate realizes,” said Kelley in a written statement. “While Sen. Collins supports increased transparency for this targeted strike program, she believes the program, in general, reduces collateral damage because drone strikes cannot be taken unless there is a near-certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed. This amendment would impose a greater requirement for drones than all other weapons, creating a perverse incentive to put U.S. service members into harm’s way rather than using drones.”

Besides national security implications, the issue is attracting attention partially because Collins is opposed in her 2014 bid for re-election by Bellows, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, who has long favored government transparency and in general has worked aggressively to pass laws that prevent the unfettered use of drones at the state, national and international levels.

Bellows told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that she favors a rigorous system of “checks and balances” on the use of drones and supports the provision requiring the reporting of civilian casualties.

“More information about the program will allow for a better discussion and debate about the nature and expense of drone use by the United States,” she said. “The measure passed by the Intelligence Committee is an important first step in that review. We need to place limits on drones. … I think the most important point is that government secrecy breeds an abuse of power.”

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