By Mike Mount
A U.S. senator insists he did not reveal any secrets when he publicly mentioned the number of people killed in drone strikes overseas.
Republican Lindsey Graham told an audience in Easley, South Carolina, on Tuesday that the little-discussed drone program had killed 4,700 people, according to a report by Easley Patch website editor Jason Evans.
"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," he was quoted as saying at the Rotary Club event.
Graham did not disclose the source of his information at the event, which is closely held by the government.
Reached on Wednesday, Graham told CNN's Dana Bash that the number he used was based on media reports, not U.S. intelligence. Graham said he was referring to total killed around the world.
For years, the United States has been targeting al Qaeda suspects in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and other countries with no official announcement or acknowledgement of the strikes.
The strikes, conducted by the CIA, are only mentioned in reports from local media after known terrorists or facilitators had been killed in explosions.
CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen has reported numbers between 1,900 and 3,300, including civilian deaths as high as 305 and as low as 261 associated with the strikes.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates deaths worldwide at 4,855, but that also includes U.S. military covert strikes with drones and other aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia .
Drone strikes have grown sharply overseas under the Obama administration.
National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said they are only used against groups and individuals who pose the most serious threats against the United States.
"We are using all of the tools" available to fight al Qaeda and that includes drones, he said last year.
He said the United States is in "full compliance" with domestic and international law.
"We have the right to take action," he said, adding it is "done prudently."
CIA director nominee John Brennan said he supports more public discussion of the drone program so Americans better understand how it is used.
"I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we're doing," Brennan, who currently serves as the president's counter-terrorism adviser, said at his recent Senate confirmation hearing.