President Barack Obama wants more transparency
Controversy over how the numbers are calculated
President Barack Obama’s administration estimated Friday that between 64 and 116 civilians have died during the years 2009-2015 from U.S. drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the same time span, the administration said between 2,372 and 2,581 militants had been taken out by drones.
The information was released as part of an effort by Obama to introduce more transparency into a controversial military tactic that he has defended as necessary to fight terror.
Human rights groups, however, were unsatisfied by the government’s disclosed figures, which came in far lower than independent estimates of civilian causalities.
The numbers released Friday included deaths outside established war zones. The administration didn’t specify which countries were included, though the military and CIA are believed to have carried out strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and various countries in Africa.
Officials said the disclosure, made in the final months of Obama’s presidency, was meant to institutionalize a rigorous reporting process for the next commander in chief.
To that end, Obama signed an executive order Friday tasking future administrations with working in a uniform way to ensure that civilians aren’t killed by drones. The order also requires the administration to disclose yearly the civilian deaths from strikes.
Agencies “shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians,” Obama wrote in the order.
Administration officials expressed confidence that Obama’s successor would uphold his order.
“I have no doubt that the next president will get the same advice from military commanders,” one official said.
Some human rights groups dismissed what they asserted was a woefully low estimate of the true number of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes.
“Although we welcome this release, it’s hard to credit the government’s death count, which is lower than all independent assessments,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The government continues to conceal the identities of people it has killed, the specific definitions it uses to decide who can legitimately be targeted, and its investigations into credibly alleged wrongful killings.”
“The American public can’t be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely with a disclosure that’s so limited as to be virtually meaningless,” Shamsi said.
Counts of civilian drone deaths have always caused controversy, given the difficulty in investigating the aftermath of strikes and unreliable reporting from on-the-ground sources.
While the CIA drone program is widely reported upon and even referenced by government officials, it remains classified and individual strikes aren’t typically confirmed by the agency.
That’s left outside groups – like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation – to piece together reports of strikes to account for civilian deaths. Their counts range from 200 to 1,000 civilian deaths.
But distinguishing between militants and civilians is often difficult and has caused discrepancies. While some civilian deaths are clear-cut – as when a 2014 U.S. strike on a wedding party in Yemen killed 12 – others involve targets whose identities are less clear.
The administration on Friday acknowledged the gap between its own figures and those of the outside groups.
Calculating the number of deaths caused by U.S. strikes is “more art than science,” according to one official.
“We acknowledge these assessments may be imperfect,” another official said, noting the complex calculation method is one of the reasons why the administration released a range of deaths, rather than a firm number.
At the same time, the government insisted in its report that other counts of civilian causalities were flawed, citing “the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations, in local media reports on which some non-governmental estimates rely.”
Friday’s disclosures follow policy reforms Obama unveiled in 2013 that he said would bring a new legal framework to the use of drone technology.
But that hasn’t done much to quiet the outrage from human rights groups, who say Obama has expanded a legally questionable killing regime.
“What little the Obama administration has previously said on the record about the drone program has been shown by the facts on the ground, and even the U.S. government’s own internal documents, to be false,” said U.S. human rights group Reprieve in a statement made before the White House report’s release.
“It has to be asked what bare numbers will mean if they omit even basic details such as the names of those killed and the areas, even the countries, they live in,” the group wrote Thursday.