U.S. Counts Drone Kills and Comes Up Short, Rights Groups Say

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President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn before boarding Marine One and departing the White House on June 3, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Government says as many as 116 civilians killed in air strikes
  • Human rights groups say the actual number is far higher

U.S. military and intelligence agencies have killed as many as 116 civilians in clandestine air strikes on terrorists and militants since President Barack Obama took office, the White House said on Friday in its first accounting of non-combatant deaths.

Obama ordered U.S. agencies to avoid harming civilians in strikes on terrorists, and said the government would annually report the number of strikes it undertakes and casualty estimates for both civilians and combatants. The White House’s figures were questioned by human rights groups, who said independent assessments had identified many more civilian deaths in the drone campaign.

“This is a powerful tool, one that has been used to great effect and one that has made Americans safer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of the strikes. But Obama believes the drone campaign “requires a structure” to ensure accountability, and that the public deserves “at least some transparency” about the results of strikes in which civilians are killed, he said.

Between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in 473 U.S. strikes outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria between the beginning of Obama’s presidency and the end of 2015, the government said. The strikes killed as many as 2,581 combatants, the government said. The figures include casualties from strikes by drones and by manned aircraft, but don’t include casualties inflicted by U.S. personnel on the ground.

‘Hard to Credit’

“It’s hard to credit the government’s death count, which is lower than all independent assessments,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 380 and 801 civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya during the period covered by the report. And the Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, estimates 207 civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during the period covered by the White House’s report.

Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, called the report “a long-overdue step toward greater transparency,” but said it was impossible to corroborate without more information on who the government targets and how it distinguishes between civilians and combatants.

“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,” Pitter said in a statement.

Details Sparse

The report on past strikes didn’t break down total casualties by year, by region, or by country. An administration official who insisted on anonymity said the White House doesn’t intend to release such details.

Obama’s executive order covers strikes undertaken “outside areas of active hostilities,” and is the first time the government has been required to issue systematic public reports on a campaign of clandestine drone strikes created by President George W. Bush and escalated under Obama.

“Certainly the question of civilian casualties is a critically important one,” Earnest said.

‘Best Practices’

Obama’s order calls civilian casualties “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.” It orders agencies undertaking strikes to train their personnel on “best practices” to avoid harming civilians, and to develop intelligence-gathering and weapons systems that will reduce the chance of collateral damage. In the event of civilian casualties, it ordered the U.S. government to acknowledge responsibility and offer condolences, including payments to people who are harmed or the families of those killed.

An administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said agencies classify casualties as combatants based on whether or not the person appears to be performing activities beneficial to a terrorist group or is integrated into the group’s activities. That may include whether the individual appears to be giving out orders or is armed, the official said.

Military-age males aren’t automatically considered combatants, nor are people within any given distance of a target, the official said. The administration makes assessments based on drone video, electronic intercepts of communications, intelligence sources on the ground, foreign governments, and public information such as media reports and reports from non-governmental organizations, the official said.

Imperfect Assessments

A second official, who also briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the estimates differ from those made by some non-governmental groups and that the assessments are imperfect because the drone attacks usually happen in areas where U.S. personnel cannot easily operate. The official said the U.S. government often has access to information outside groups don’t possess, while groups with staff on the ground may have access to information the U.S. doesn’t.

The executive order requires annual reports by May 1 on casualties from air strikes each prior year. While a future president could countermand the order, Obama deliberately tried to create a system his successors would retain, an official said.

Obama’s Anguish

Obama has said that he and his advisers “anguish” over the drone program. During a town hall-style event in April at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama spent 12 minutes discussing the issue after a student questioned the president’s constitutional authority to order the strikes, highlighting the fact that American citizens have been killed in some of them.

“Part of my job as president is to figure out how I can keep Americans safe, doing the least damage possible in really tough, bad situations,” Obama told the student. “There are folks out there who are genuinely trying to kill us and would be happy to blow up this entire room without any compunction and are actively trying to find ways to do it.”

Drone strikes are vetted at the highest levels of government and require “near-certainty” that civilians won’t be killed to be authorized, Obama said at the time.

“I wish I could just send in Iron Man,” Obama said. “I don’t mean that as a joke.”

A U.S. drone killed the Afghan Taliban’s top leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan in May, increasing strains with the sometime U.S. ally.

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