Obama Downplays Civilian Casualties in Drone War: Investigations Present a Grimmer Picture
February 2, 2012
AntiWar.com & The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
CIA drone strikes have led to far more deaths in Pakistan than previously acknowledge. In June 2011, Washington officials stated that no civilians had died. However, an estimate released by a US counter-terrorism official listed 2,050 people as having been killed in drone strikes to mid-August 2011. Since then, credible reports have surfaced identifying at least 392 civilians among the dead. At least 2,347 people were reportedly killed in US attacks since 2004, 175 of them children.
Obama Denies 'Huge Number of Civilian Casualties' in Drone War
John Glaser / AntiWar.com
(January 30, 2012) -- President Barack Obama readily confirmed the drone war in northwest Pakistan in an interview Monday, breaking with the protocol which normally demands US officials not speak publicly about the classified program.
"I want to make sure people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," President Obama said in an hour-long interview hosted by Google. "For the most part, they've been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates."
The claim mirrors previous attempts to downplay the civilian casualties of the drone war. John Brennan, President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, told the public back in June that zero civilian casualties have occurred as a result of US drone strikes in Pakistan.
This was an obvious lie, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism [See story below] helped prove it so in August by cataloguing their lengthy findings on civilian casualties in the drone war, counting hundreds of civilians by name who were killed in drone strikes, including at least 168 children. Investigative reporter Noor Behram, who had been on the ground in Pakistan tallying the dead, estimated that "for every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant."
A Washington Post article last month explained that, although the government has dismissed "reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents" by claiming that drones "result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons," they have yet to provide any details to support those claims.
The Post report said that the drone war in Pakistan has resulted "in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths." But the public simply doesn't have a good idea of how many have been killed, because "the identities...remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself."
In the same Google interview, President Obama also down-played the role of US drones in Iraq, saying that "the truth is we're not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside Iraq. There's some surveillance to make sure that our embassy compound is protected."
Both Pakistan and Iraq have publicly objected to America's use of drones flying over their skies, saying it amounts to a violation of their sovereignty.
Drone War Exposed:
The Complete Picture of CIA Strikes in Pakistan
Chris Woods / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
(August 10, 2011) -- CIA drone strikes have led to far more deaths in Pakistan than previously understood, according to extensive new research published by the Bureau. Some 175 children are among at least 2,347 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004. There are credible reports of at least 392 civilians among the dead.
In a surprise move, a counter-terrorism official has also released US government estimates of the numbers killed. These state that an estimated 2,050 people have been killed in drone strikes to mid-August -- of whom all but an estimated 50 are combatants.
The Bureau's fundamental reassessment of the covert US campaign involved a complete re-examination of all that is known about each US drone strike.
The study is based on close analysis of credible materials: some 2,000 media reports; witness testimonies; field reports of NGOs and lawyers; secret US government cables; leaked intelligence documents, and relevant accounts by journalists, politicians and former intelligence officers.
The Bureau's findings are published in a 22,000-word database, which covers each individual strike in Pakistan in detail. A powerful search engine, an extensive timeline and searchable maps accompany the data.
The result is the clearest public understanding so far of the CIA's covert drone war against the militants. Yet US intelligence officials are understood to be briefing against the Bureau's work, claiming 'significant problems with its numbers and methodologies.'
Iain Overton, the Bureau's editor said: 'It comes as no surprise that the US intelligence services would attack our findings in this way. But to claim our methodology is problematic before we had even published reveals how they really operate. A revelation that is reinforced by the fact that they cannot bring themselves to refer to non-combatants as what they really are: civilians and, all too often, children'.
Many More Strikes
The Bureau's data reveals many more CIA attacks on alleged militant targets than previously reported. At least 305 US drone strikes are now known to have taken place since 2004.
The intended targets -- militants in the tribal areas -- appear to make up the majority of those killed. There are almost 150 named militants among the dead since 2004, though hundreds are unknown, low-ranking fighters. But as many as 175 children have also been reported killed among at least 392 civilians.
More than 1,150 people are also revealed to have been injured in the US drone attacks -- the first time this number has been collated.
In the wake of the Bureau's findings Amnesty International has called for more CIA transparency. 'The Obama administration must explain the legal basis for drone strikes in Pakistan to avoid the perception that it acts with impunity. The Pakistan government must also ensure accountability for indiscriminate killing, in violation of international law, that occurs inside Pakistan,' said Amnesty's Director of Asia Pacific Sam Zarifi.
The Bureau's Key Findings
* 305 CIA attacks have taken place in Pakistan -- 8% more than previously reported. Under President Obama alone there have been 253 strikes -- one every four days.
* Between 2,347 and 2,956 people are reported to have died in the attacks -- most of them militants
* The minimum number of reported deaths is far higher than previously believed -- with 40% more recorded casualties. Most of those killed are likely to be low-ranking militants.
* Up to 150 named militants have so far been killed.
* The Bureau has collated credible news reports of 392-781 civilians being killed in the attacks.
* The Bureau has identified credible reports of 175 children killed in the drone strikes. Under President Bush, one in three of all attacks is reported to have killed a child.
* For the first time the Bureau has compiled accurate details of recorded injuries in drone strikes, revealing that at least 1,158 people have been wounded.
With the US military unable to operate overtly inside Pakistan, the Obama administration has come to rely heavily on CIA drone strikes to attack alleged militants in the country's western tribal areas. To date, at least 253 drone attacks have been ordered in Obama's name, the Bureau's research shows.
At least 1,897 people have been reported killed in the Obama strikes, most of them militants.
Recently, Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan stated that the president has 'insisted' that Pakistan drone strikes 'do not put... innocent men, women and children in danger'. Yet at least 225 of those killed in drone attacks in Obama's time in office may have been civilians.
Civilian casualties do seem to have declined in the past year. Yet the Bureau still found credible evidence of at least 45 civilians killed in some ten strikes in this time. The US continues to insist that it 'can't confirm any noncombatant casualties' in the past year.
The most recently reported civilian fatalities were on October 31. Tariq Khan, aged 16 and his 12-year old cousin Wahid were killed in a strike on North Waziristan.
Internal US Figures
The US government's own internal estimate of those killed in the drone strikes was released in August and totaled about 2,050. All but 50 of these were described as militants. No 'non-combatants' have died in the past year, a US counter-terrorism official claimed. The Bureau's own minimum suggested casualty figure across the campaign is 2,347 to the end of October 2011.
Yet a US counter-terrorism official told the Bureau that its numbers were 'way off the mark'. The Washington-based official said: 'These actions target militants planning actively to kill Afghans, Pakistanis, Europeans, and Americans among others, and most often the operations occur when they're training or on the move, getting ready to attack. Over 4,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed by terrorists since 2009 -- the threat is clear and real.'
Reprieve, the legal action charity, which campaigns on human rights issues said: 'With the Bureau's findings, at last we have a hard and comprehensive look at the facts. It is a great start. From now on, Reprieve hopes people will read official propaganda about drone warfare with a grain of salt -- and ask themselves whether drones are radicalizing as many young men as Guantánamo did.'
Pakistan Condemns Drone Strikes as "Unlawful"
John Glaser / AntiWar.com
(January 31, 2012) -- Islamabad issued another condemnation on Monday of Washington's drone war in northwest Pakistan, branding it "unlawful, counterproductive and unacceptable," after President Obama for the first time publicly acknowledged the classified program. Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said: "Our position on drone strikes is clear and based on principle. We cannot condone the violation of our sovereignty."
Obama acknowledged the extrajudicial execution campaign in an interview that streamed live on YouTube. "I want to make sure people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," he said. "For the most part, they've been very precise, precision strikes against against al-Qaeda and their affiliates."
But investigative reports tell a very different story, namely that a large portion of the thousands of people killed in drone strikes since 2004 have been civilians. Furthermore, those militants that have been killed are mostly low-level insurgent operatives that are only known as such because the government said so.
Pakistani officials have been known to assist the CIA in carrying out drone strikes in the past, so Islamabad's condemnation cannot be considered totally genuine. But the Pakistani people have been outraged by such constant attacks and have protested in the hundreds of thousands.
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