The United States has inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 non-combatant civilians in drone and other lethal attacks against terrorism suspects in places not considered active war zones, the Obama administration said Friday.
The unintentional deaths came in a total of 473 CIA and military counterterrorism strikes up to the end of 2015 that the administration said have taken between 2372 and 2581 militants permanently off the battlefield in countries where the United States is not at war, which would include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
The release was accompanied by an executive order, signed by President Barack Obama, designed to give added weight to existing administration standards and procedures governing the use of lethal force and for limiting civilian casualties.
The long-awaited casualty disclosures are part of an attempt to live up to Obama’s repeated promises of greater transparency about his administration’s extraordinary reliance on armed drones in the targeted killings of terrorism suspects.
In releasing only aggregate figures that do not include when or where the strikes occured, the administration sought to bolster government assertions about the accuracy and effectiveness of the program, even as it shielded those claims from meaningful public scrutiny.
Independent research groups that track drone strikes have produced significantly higher estimates of non-combatant deaths. The New America Foundation and the Long War Journal each put the number of civilians killed at about 250. A third group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, believes the number is far higher, estimating that as many as 358 civilians have died in U.S. counterterrorism operations since Obama took office.
The newly released figures were cast as a rebuke to those claims, which U.S. officials have said are often inflated by erroneous press reports or even efforts by Pakistan and Yemen to pass off their own military miscues as U.S. drone strikes. But by withholding information about its methodology and refusing to release data on specific strikes the administration is unlikely to sway skeptics.
“I give this administration credit for being more forthcoming and recognizing the need” for increased public accountability, said Micah Zenko, an expert on the U.S. drone program at the Council on Foreign Relations. But “putting out raw numbers without any clarifying information” leaves reason to remain skeptical of the government’s claims, Zenko said. “You can’t grade your own homework.”
The administration’s figures were largely drawn from post-strike analyses done by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command – entities that even critics acknowledge have become more accurate in their use of armed drones but nevertheless have institutional incentives to undercount the number of civilians they kill.
“So long as the public is examining these casualties in the dark, with these little bitty flashlights, we are never going to understand the depth and breadth of this lethal program,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. The administration’s claim of fewer than 100 civilian casualties is “highly questionable,” Tayler said, attributing the gap between it and outside estimates to the government’s “overly elastic definitions of combatant and civilian.”
The executive order codifies standards put into place in May 2013, with a still-secret document called Presidential Policy Guidelines, or PPG. The guideline narrowed standards for the use of lethal force outside war zones that at the time included only Afghanistan. Iraq and Syria have subsequently been added to the zones where the United States deems itself at war.
For places outside those zones, “lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons,” according to a public summary of the standards released at the time,”and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.”
Such force was to be used “outside areas of active hostilities,” it said, only when certain preconditions were met. They included a “near certainty” that “the terrorist target is present” and that “non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
The summary also said that Obama had directed the military to gradually take over all lethal strikes, the bulk of which at that time were being conducted by the CIA. Officially considered covert actions, the CIA strikes have been shielded from disclosure, while the military is bound to account for its actions to Congress and the public.
Obama reemphasized that point in a speech in Chicago in April, saying “I don’t want our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization. That’s not their function. As much as possible this should be done through our Defense Department so that we can report, ‘Here’s what we did, here’s why we did it, here’s our assessment of what happened.'”
The military this year began publicly acknowledging drone strikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen, a step that the Pentagon had refused to take in previous years largely out of concern that identifying its own operations, while the administration remained silent on others, would indirectly expose those carried out by the CIA.
The administration agreed earlier this year, as part of a court case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, to release a redacted version of the PPG document. That release has been delayed by ongoing discussions between the court and the administration over what portions can be legitimately blacked out.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karen DeYoung, Greg Miller