White House Drone Release Is Big on Numbers, Short on Detail
The Obama administration finally releases an estimate of how many civilians were killed in its secret drone strikes. But rights groups say the true numbers are vastly higher.
The Obama administration opened a small window on the lethality of its drone program Friday, for the first time offering a rough estimate of the number of civilians killed in counterterrorism air raids. But the death toll estimate continues to obscure much more than it illuminates.
In a long-anticipated move, the White House said that the 473 airstrikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military between January 2009 and December 2015 killed between 64 and 116 civilians, while taking out as many as 2,581 militants. All of those strikes by both drones and manned aircraft occurred outside recognized war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, though officials would not specify where the bombing raids happened. And administration officials on Friday admitted that those numbers are little more than best guesses.
“We’re not saying we can pinpoint an exact number” of civilian deaths from drone strikes outside declared war zones, one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Friday in a teleconference. And the official added that “there may be a revised estimate somewhere down the road” as more information becomes available on who may have been killed in strikes.
For years, human rights groups had demanded the administration ease the secrecy around the air raids in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya by revealing details of strikes and releasing the rules that govern the operations. Rights groups on Friday promptly accused the White House of undercounting the number of civilians possibly killed in the drone raids. Independent estimates from monitoring groups have placed the numbers of civilian dead outside of U.S. war zones anywhere from the mid-200s to over 1,000.
The bloodless nature of the White House’s release — which provides no dates, names, or countries of the dead — led some critics to challenge just how transparent Friday’s disclosures are.
“It’s been seven years since President Obama launched his first strike — a strike that killed 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi’s family and left Faheem himself severely injured. Where is he in these numbers? Is he in there at all?” Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer with the human rights group Reprieve, told Foreign Policy, referring to an air raid in Pakistan. “The simple answer is: We don’t know.”
The White House also announced that President Barack Obama had issued an executive order that essentially codifies the procedures for approving drone strikes that the administration has been honing since 2009. Officials said the order makes protecting civilians a priority for counterterrorism operations, while mandating that future administrations disclose the number of civilian deaths each year.
The order – which is not binding and can be rescinded by future presidents — declares that “civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state’s inherent right of self-defense,” but outlines some “best practices” to protect civilians.
The executive order also instructs the director of national intelligence to address the gaps between the U.S. government’s yearly estimate of civilian casualties and those from nongovernmental organizations or watchdogs.
Still, the announcement leaves an array of key questions unanswered. It’s unclear how the administration calculated the civilian death toll, where and when the strikes occurred, what went wrong in each case, and whether the casualty trend has stayed steady or declined over time. In short, the White House failed to explain the discrepancy between the government’s number and estimates from outside groups or media reports, experts said.
“This was a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done,” said Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center, who helped write a report urging the White House to be more forthcoming about the drone program.
“Without contextual data — such as geographic location or a year-by-year breakdown of the statistics — and absent a clear methodology for counting casualties, the figures cannot be fully understood,” she said.
The use of drones as the preferred method of waging a global war against terror groups will stand as Obama’s legacy in many parts of the world, where the strikes have sowed resentment and have been the calling card of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, known as JSOC.
Critics have long charged that the administration’s “signature strike” program, which authorizes bombing raids on groups of people who display signs of militant activity even if the United States doesn’t know their identities or have proof they were linked to potential new attacks, has led to the deaths of civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to rights advocates, the tactic transforms all military-age males in certain trouble spots into acceptable targets for U.S. drone operators.
“We don’t consider all military-age males as combatants,” another administration official told reporters, adding that a range of factors, from informants to long-term aerial surveillance of subjects, shapes targeting decisions.
How those decisions are made, and by whom, has long been a point of contention, especially during the hundreds of drone strikes the CIA conducted in Pakistan during the early days of the Obama administration. The strikes on Pakistan have slowed dramatically in recent years, falling from 117 in 2010 to just three so far in 2016, according to the Long War Journal. The intelligence agency also has handed off some of its drone operations to the JSOC as the White House moves the drone program from the intelligence agency to the military.
The disclosure “is a crucial shift away from the Obama administration’s longstanding policy of concealing information about civilians killed in drone strikes,” Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah said in a statement. “It is a vital step in dismantling the dangerous precedent of a global, secret killing program.”
Speaking about civilian casualties earlier this year, Obama acknowledged that the drone program had lacked a solid legal underpinning.
“There has been, in the past, legitimate criticism that the legal architecture around the use of drone strikes or other kinetic strength was not as precise as it should have been, and there is no doubt that civilians were killed that should not have been,” he said in May.
Officials told reporters the policies that had been crafted for drone strikes went far beyond the requirements of the laws of armed conflict, obliging commanders and intelligence officers to have “near certainty” that an operation would not result in a civilian death. But there was no guarantee that mistakes could be avoided, officials said.
Even with strict standards, a senior official said, “you can still make an error.”
Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary