Do Not Believe the U.S. Government’s Official Numbers on Drone Strike Civilian Casualties

It’s way, way too low.

In February 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went public on the collateral damage of “targeted strikes”: “The figures we have obtained from the executive branch — which we have done our utmost to verify — confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.” Afterward, journalist Spencer Ackerman asked Feinstein how she could be so confident the CIA was not misleading with its drone strikes when it had misled Congress regarding its rendition and interrogation program. Feinstein replied, “That’s a good question, actually. That’s a good question.”

On Friday, July 1, the Obama administration released information that more or less confirmed Feinstein’s claim from three years ago but did nothing to address the underlying question of why those numbers should be trusted. With a long-awaited presidential executive order and a two-and-a-half-page “report” released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Obama administration has carefully revealed some additional information about “U.S. Government” (no distinction given between CIA and U.S. military operations) “strikes” (no mention of drones or unmanned aircraft) against “terrorist targets” (broadly defined) that are “outside areas of active hostilities” (meaning Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia).

According to the ODNI report, between Jan. 20, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2015, there were 473 strikes that killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 noncombatants. According to the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (found here), as of Friday President Barack Obama has actually been responsible for 528 strikes that killed 4,189 persons, an estimated 474 of whom were civilians.

That there would be a discrepancy between U.S. government data and the numbers provided by nongovernmental research organizations is unsurprising. We have limited direct insights into how the government classifies somebody as a combatant or noncombatant, but what we do know is that official government estimates for civilian deaths have been implausibly low. Most notoriously, in June 2011, then-senior counterterrorism advisor John Brennan claimed,

“For the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”

In April 2013, McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay wrote about classified intelligence reports that detailed who the CIA believed had been killed by 95 drone strikes conducted in Pakistan between September 2010 and September 2011. The reports note the deceased are often referred to simply as “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” Of those 95 strikes that the CIA estimated killed 482 people, only a single civilian casualty was acknowledged, which occurred in an April 22, 2011, drone strike in North Waziristan.

Given that Brennan (who oversaw counterterrorism operations from the White House) apparently actually believed that no civilians had been killed in more than a year, while the CIA believed just one out of 482 individuals killed in a one-year period was a noncombatant, the Obama administration has apparently had wholly unrealistic faith in the intelligence underlying its counterterrorism-targeting decisions and the precision of its drone strikes.

The most consequential omission from the executive order (which is really just rationale and process language released by the government) and the ODNI’s data is the absence of any clarifying information. In a report I released in January 2013 on reforming drone strike policies, the core recommendation made for the president was to provide “information to the public, Congress, and UN special rapporteurs—without disclosing classified information—on what procedures exist to prevent harm to civilians, including collateral damage mitigation, investigations into collateral damage, corrective actions based on those investigations, and amends for civilian losses.” Of these requests, only one is truly forthcoming today, the pledge of “ex gratia payments, to civilians who are injured or to the families of civilians who are killed.”

What is particularly disappointing is that for military operations conducted within battlefields, the U.S. military often does provide exactly the information recommended above. U.S. Central Command has released several investigatory reports ranging from 50 to 700 pages into airstrikes that killed civilians and U.S. service members in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. The reports include minute-by-minute recounting of events, maps, radio chatter, interviews with commanders and pilots, an assignment of responsibility, recommendations for administrative actions, and corrective recommendations for how to mitigate against the risk of similar civilian casualty (CIVCAS) events in the future. Consider just five such reports released during Obama’s presidency:

April 2011: Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith and Navy medic Benjamin Rast were unintentionally killed near Sangin, Afghanistan, by a drone strike while on their way to rescue Marines pinned down by Taliban gunfire.

June 2014: Two bombs dropped on a ridgeline in Zabul province, Afghanistan, unintentionally killed five U.S. soldiers and one Afghan National Army soldier.

November 2014: Multiple airstrikes against the so-called Khorasan Group’s bomb-making compound near Harim, Syria, “likely resulted in the deaths of two civilian children.”

March 2015: A four-second A-10 strafing attack on an Islamic State checkpoint near Hatra, Iraq, “likely resulted in the deaths of four non-combatants.”

October 2015: An AC-130 gunship firing 211 rounds of munitions for 30 minutes and eight seconds against a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed 42 civilians.

Why can detailed and exhaustive information be released for these operations (by both manned and unmanned aircraft), which are conducted by the U.S. military, as are some of those conducted “outside areas of active hostilities” — namely all of those in Somalia and some in Yemen? Or why can’t such information be provided even if it is conducted by the CIA, given that the Obama administration cannot plausibly pretend that the operations are any longer “covert”? Indeed, Obama himself first acknowledged drone strikes “in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after al Qaeda suspects” in January 2012, which are only conducted by the CIA.

President Obama and his senior aides have consistently made claims about the need for reforming and providing additional transparency in U.S. counterterrorism operations. I have always given Obama credit for making an effort toward transparency, but his administration should be remembered as the most selectively transparent administration in history. There are a lot of additional steps that many within and outside the government have proposed and championed for years, but what was released on Friday is apparently the limit of reform for lethal counterterrorism strikes that this president will pursue. This has implications for having a normative impact on how other countries conduct such operations and on promoting credibility domestically.

Finally, just last week, the U.S. Defense Department released a new Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment, which features seven “key tenets.” The final one reads: “The Department must coordinate and synchronize influence activities with informing activities, primarily public affairs, which release information that becomes immediately available to all public audiences including adversaries and potential adversaries. The credibility and legitimacy of the United States must be preserved.” Indeed, it should be preserved — and at times it is selectively — when it comes to U.S. military operations. But when it comes to Obama’s embrace and vast expansion of drone strikes against militants and terrorists, the credibility and legitimacy of the United States depends entirely on whether you take the administration at its word.

Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the FP Insights Tool when you subscribe to FP Premium for 20% off!