Did Obama Just Lowball The Drone War Death Toll?

The White House says its airstrikes only killed 116 civilians. At least one independent group of experts say the real number is in the thousands.

SS Mirza/AFP/Getty

The Obama administration said Friday it had killed as many as 116 civilians through its air campaign against jihadists in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

Yet no one who has studied the preferred U.S. tactic in the war against terror groups like al Qaeda consider that figure accurate. At least one independent group of observers put the number of innocents slain by U.S. drones and other aircraft in the thousands.

And because the administration provided no details when, where or how those deaths occurred, there was no way to assess the effects of the U.S. war on extremists outside its war zones. That is, the release of the numbers, which the administration hailed Friday as move toward transparency, instead only added to the obfuscation surrounding America’s counterterror operations.

In all, the administration said it had killed as many as 2,581 militants since Obama assumed office on Jan. 20 2009.

U.S. officials offered scant information to demonstrate how they came up with the figure, which many human rights groups and terrorism experts consider to be dubious.

According to a three-page report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, from the beginning of the Obama administration through Dec. 31, 2015, the U.S. has conducted 473 drone and manned airstrikes in areas outside the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, states that are part of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign against extremists.

The Daily Beast first reported last month that the administration planned to announce it had killed around 100 militants.

The administration concluded that, in addition to civilians, the strikes killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants. But the long-awaited unveiling of the U.S. assessment fell short of the detailed assessment that human rights groups and critics of the Obama and Bush administration’s counterterrorism operations have called for.

The administration did not say in which country the strikes occurred, which extremist groups were targeted, what proportion of the strikes were conducted by drone or manned aircraft, nor when each strike occurred. They also did not offer a year-by-year breakdown of the number of strikes, rather than an aggregate number covering the whole of Obama’s time in office.

“The Obama administration’s release of figures on civilian casualties in lethal strike operations is a long-overdue step toward greater transparency,” Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “But the U.S. has failed to explain who it targets and why, making it impossible to corroborate its casualty figures.”

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity suggested that more deaths from such strikes had occurred during the earlier years of the Obama administration, and that there was a drop-off in later years when officials became better at distinguishing terrorists and minimizing civilian casualties.

“We frankly learned from past” strikes, the official said.

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Administration officials would not say how many of strikes were conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency compared to the Defense Department, and they did not say how many of its strikes had been investigated for suspected civilian casualties.

Indeed, even the figure of 116 so-called “non-combatant deaths” was incomplete. The administration said it had killed between 64 and 116 non-combatants. A second senior administration official who briefed reporters said that in instances where it was not clear whether the person killed was a civilian or combatant, officials listed the person as a civilian.

Many human rights groups consider the number of deaths improbably low, based on independent assessments which have put the number in the thousands. For example, Reprieve, a human rights group dedicated to studying the U.S. drone war, estimates that 4,700 people in all have been killed. And a 2013 McClatchy report found that despite U.S. assertions that drone strikes had killed top level al Qaeda members, classified documents show that the strikes have also killed hundreds of lower level militants. Most embrace findings that the number of civilian casualties could be as high as 1,000.

The administration, however, repeatedly called the casualty number “transparent” and noted the U.S. takes great care to minimize civilian casualties, even at the risk sometimes of not striking a suspected jihadist. But the officials struggled to explain how mistakes were made, given what they consider precision strikes.

Administration officials said they released as much as they could while protecting the needed secrecy of the program.

“We have some uncertainty and we are trying to be as honest about that as possible,” one of the senior administration officials on the call with reporters explained.

Perhaps the best known U.S. civilian killed in counterterrorism strikes is Warren Weinstein, who was being held by al Qaeda in Pakistan when a January 2015 U.S. strike targeting the deputy al Qaeda leader in the Indian Subcontinent killed Weinstein and another hostage, Italian citizen Giovanni LePorto.

The administration has called its drone program a precise, effective form of warfare that targets terrorists and reduces the chances of the United States becoming embroiled in quagmires in the war against extremists. But many opponents said the U.S. often does not know who it is killing—and even worse that it is evasive about who it is targeting. Even some defense officials fear the drone program has led some to join extremist groups.

Terror leaders around the world have cited the drone war as a reason for others to join their ranks. The release of the order and official tally will likely, in the short term, only add to the controversy.

In addition to the figures, the administration also released an executive order requiring that civilian casualty numbers be released every year on May 1.

President Obama has repeatedly addressed his concerns about potential civilian casualties in an air war that lacks ground troops to assess damage from strikes.

“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” the president said at a news conference after Weinstein and Porto’s death. “But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

The administration’s findings were notably released on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend, when many are likely to miss an announcement hailed as move toward transparency.

The reason for the wide discrepancies between the administration’s casualty count and those by outside groups, officials said, is that the the U.S. government has access to sensitive, real-time intelligence about the strike and uses methods for counting casualties that non-governmental organizations lack. What’s more, outside observers are relying in some cases on information that may be coming from people who are trying to deliberately inflate the figures, such as terrorist groups, officials said.

“The U.S. Government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations,” according to a summary of the casualty figures released by the DNI office.

Whereas non-governmental organizations frequently rely on media reports and secondary sources for their counts, the government's “post-strike reviews involve the collection and analysis of multiple sources of intelligence before, during, and after a strike, including video observations, human sources and assets, signals intelligence, geospatial intelligence, accounts from local officials on the ground, and open source reporting,” the DNI’s office said.

Also, outside groups’ assessments “may be further complicated by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations, in local media reports on which some non-governmental estimates rely,” the intelligence office said.

Human rights groups lauded the administration’s efforts to increase transparency but said crucial gaps still remain in the public’s understanding about how drones strikes are conducted and, importantly, who the administration actually counts as a civilian.

“Without information on the administration’s definitions and legal standards for these strikes, any meaningful assessment of the numbers will be incomplete,” Naureen Shah, the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, said in a statement. “This is not the end of the public conversation on U.S. drone strikes, but just the beginning.”

Federico Borello, Executive Director of Center for Civilians in Conflict, said in a statement that the administration should condition the sale of weapons to foreign militaries on their incorporating policies to protect civilians.

“Civilian protection usually become a priority only after tragedies have already occurred. This is neither ethically acceptable nor strategically smart,” he said.