These killings began under President George W. Bush, exploded under President Barack Obama, and continue today. They constitute the majority of federal executions. Just 50 people are on federal death row. (Add in the 50 states and America has approximately 2,553 total death-row inmates.) According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama authorized 542 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has higher death counts. And the Trump administration is thought to have accelerated the pace of drone killings, though its lack of transparency makes counting difficult.
Of course, the comparison to death row is not perfect. While death-row inmates are incarcerated and no longer present any danger to society, drone strikes target people who aren’t in U.S. custody and who allegedly pose a threat to America. Then again, all federal death-row inmates were charged, afforded counsel, tried, convicted by a jury of their peers, and given years to pursue appeals. Even after all that, Sotomayor worries that they’ve had insufficient due process and insists that the Trump administration carried out their executions too hastily. Yet drone killings mete out death to individuals who have never been charged or tried. In some cases, the federal government does not even know the identity of the person it is killing––just that he or she is leaving a suspected terrorist safe house, or that a phone he or she is thought to possess was in communication with people considered “militants” by the U.S. military or the CIA.
Investigative Issues: Drone Killings Are America’s Shadow Death Row