U.S. claims drones only killed 116 civilians; experts say it's way more

Journalists and rights experts say the Obama admin.'s report on drone strikes is understated and lacks transparency

Published July 1, 2016 11:45PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
(Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

According to the Obama administration, just 64 to 116 civilians have been killed in its secretive drone program.

The U.S. government published a report on Friday, July 1 that claims that the counter-terrorism airstrikes it conducted outside of conventional war zones between January 2009 and the end of 2015 only killed scores of non-combatants.

Experts say the number is likely much higher.

The report, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, analyzes 473 U.S. strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, the vast majority of which were carried out by drones. It says 2,372 to 2,581 so-called combatants were killed in these attacks.

The U.S. government is not clear about how it defines combatant. The New York Times reported in 2012 that President "Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties" that "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

For years, the U.N., Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the U.S. government's secrecy in its drone assassination program, and have even implied that the Obama administration may be guilty of war crimes.

President Obama touted the report on Friday as a sign of his administration's commitment to transparency. Yet scholars, journalists and human rights officials who have long monitored the drone program are worried that the investigation's findings are drastically understated.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been one of the leading forces in the documentation of drone casualties. In a statement, the organization noted that the U.S. government's figures are a mere "fraction" of what its detailed research has found.

The organization used reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigations, leaked government documents, court papers and the results of field investigations to analyze the U.S. drone strikes that took place in this 2009 to 2015 period.

It found that at least 380 to 801 civilians were killed, several times more than the Obama administration's 64 to 116 estimate. And this is still a conservative estimate, based primarily on cautious media reporting.

Salon reached out to Jack Serle, a reporter at the Bureau who specializes in the drone program.

“This data release is a welcome step towards greater transparency," Serle said. "However, we still don't have information on specific strikes, in particular several attacks that killed significant numbers of civilians, according to our monitoring. This makes it impossible to reconcile our civilian casualty figures with theirs."

"The White House hasn't even broken down the figures by year or by country, leaving us none the wiser as to how the drone war has progressed since the first strike of Obama's presidency, on Jan. 23, 2009, killed at least nine civilians," Serle added. The new U.S. president accepted his Nobel Peace Prize just the month before this attack.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an article on Friday in response to the new report, detailing its findings and methodology and comparing them to those of the U.S. government.

Human rights officials

After the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its report, President Obama also issued an executive order calling on the government to report on civilian casualties every year and to offer condolences to families hurt by U.S. strikes.

Human rights officials applauded the administration for the executive order, but still have numerous concerns.

Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, told Salon that she, too, is skeptical of the government's casualty figures.

"It is very hard to assess the accuracy of their numbers because they are not broken down by year or even country," she said.

"The U.S. has failed to explain who it targets and why, making it impossible to corroborate its casualty figures," she added. "Unless details are provided on specific incidents, it’s not possible to determine if individuals killed were civilians, and thus whether the U.S. is complying with its own policy and with international law."

Human Rights Watch conducted its own independent investigations into some of the U.S. drone strikes that took place in Yemen between 2009 and 2013, Pitter recalled. The human rights organization concluded that more than 50 non-combatants were killed in these attacks alone, and this is a conservative estimate based on only a portion of the U.S. drone strikes that took place in one country.

The vast majority of U.S. drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan, not Yemen.

Pitter also pointed out that the fact that the U.S. government is providing a large range of civilian casualties, and not a specific number, indicates that it itself is not even 100 percent sure.

"It is hard to put much stock in them," she said.

Secret government documents leaked to The Intercept by a whistleblower show that, according to official figures, 90 percent of people killed in U.S. drone strikes in a five-month period in provinces on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan were not the intended targets.

The Obama administration's new report excludes drone strikes conducted in “areas of active hostilities” such as Afghanistan from its figures.

Pitter did have some good things to say, nevertheless.

"The fact that the U.S. government going forward is making it policy to acknowledge these kind of strikes, outside areas of active hostilities, and provide compensation is extremely important," she said. "They should have done that years ago."

The Human Rights Watch expert called the decision "a long-overdue step toward greater transparency."

Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights Program, likewise told Salon that the U.S. report "is really important."

The Obama administration's secrecy has been “damaging and dangerous,” she said.

The U.S. is the first government in the world to use lethal drones on a wide scale, Shah stressed.

“We still have fundamental questions about the basics of those numbers,” she continued, expressing concern about how low they are. "But it’s hard to reliably have that information."


Some observers, however, say the U.S. report amounts to little more than window dressing, and does not represent a real commitment to transparency.

For starters, the Obama administration released the report on the Friday before the July 4 three-day weekend.

Journalist Spencer Ackerman, who has reported on the U.S. drone program for years, quipped on Twitter, "Nothing says transparency like saying you killed between 64 and 116 civilians (hundreds less than estimates) before July 4 weekend."

At a deeper level, however, the report's diminutive findings and its failure to disclose methodology may themselves betray the U.S.'s professed commitment to transparency.

"The U.S. government’s estimate of civilian casualties is misleading at best and, at worst, a distortion of the reality on the ground," said Omar Shakir, a legal expert who has extensively studied the U.S. drone program.

Shakir told Salon that he feels the report, in reality, continues to shroud the drone program in secrecy and fails to provide a basic accounting of U.S. policies.

"There is strong evidence that the numbers are significantly higher than what the U.S. has said," noted Shakir, who is currently a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The report "raises serious questions about how the U.S. classifies individuals as combatants and non-combatants," he added.

"Nobody should mistake this for an exact figure."

Shakir is a co-author of “Living Under Drones,” a joint study conducted over nine months by the law schools at Stanford University and New York University.

The intensive 2012 report found that the U.S. drone program had killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, and “cause[d] considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.”

It noted that the U.S. has conducted drone strikes on rescuers who were trying to help people hit in previous attacks, making “both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.”

Amnesty International's Naureen Shah stressed to Salon that the human rights organization also documented these double-tap strikes in its investigations.

"Living Under Drones" concluded that the U.S. drone program has “terrorize[d] men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”

In the report, Shakir said he and the other scholars who studied U.S. strikes found that the methodology of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was "the most comprehensive and thorough."

Even then, however, the Bureau's reporting was still conservative, Shakir noted. The “Living Under Drones” fact-founding team on the ground found strikes that resulted in civilian casualties that the Bureau missed.

"Unfortunately, the way this campaign has been conducted in the shadows really prevents people from having a real sense of exactly how many people have been killed," he said.

Shakir underscored the fact that investigations aren't conducted after U.S. drone attacks, and operators themselves can’t make determinations of casualties.

"It is not a step toward transparency," he said. The new report "maintains the same line: just trust us."

Scholars and journalists have long expressed concern that U.S. drone strikes do more damage in the long-run, by fueling extremism in communities affected by the attacks.

Pakistani-American scholar Hassan Abbas is one of many experts who have argued that the U.S. drone program creates more extremists than it kills.

Even the head of intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the U.S. military unit that oversees the drone program, has admitted that it creates more extremists than it kills.

“When you drop a bomb from a drone... you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” Michael T. Flynn warned. The retired Army lieutenant general, who also served as the U.S. Central Command’s director of intelligence, says that “the more bombs we drop, that just... fuels the conflict.”

Renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky has characterized the U.S. government’s secretive drone assassination program as a massive and illegal campaign of global terrorism.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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