First US Assessment of Drone Strikes Downplays Civilian Deaths
July 1, 2016
Associated Press & Bill Roggio / The Long War Journal
Peeling back some of the secrecy of America's drone strikes on suspected terrorists, the Obama administration on Friday said it has killed up to 116 civilians in counterterror attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where the US is not engaged in active, on-the-ground warfare.
US Says Up to 116 Civilians Killed in Counterterror Strikes
WASHINGTON (July 1, 2016) -- Peeling back some of the secrecy of America's drone strikes on suspected terrorists, the Obama administration on Friday said it has killed up to 116 civilians in counterterror attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where the US is not engaged in active, on-the-ground warfare.
The first-ever public assessment is a response to mounting pressure for more information about lethal US operations overseas. Human rights and other groups quickly complained that the administration undercounted civilian casualties and called on the White House to release far more information.
The report by National Intelligence Director James Clapper said the US conducted 473 counterterror strikes, including those by unmanned drones, between January 2009 and December 2015. He did not mention where the strikes occurred, but the Defense Department and CIA have pursued targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. The data didn't include strikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which the US considers areas of active hostilities.
The attacks killed an estimated 2,372 to 2,581 combatants in those seven years, the report said. Between 64 and 116 non-combatants were killed.
The administration noted the much higher estimates by non-governmental organizations, which go as high as 900 for the same timeframe. Senior US officials cited several reasons for the discrepancy, including the government's access to sensitive intelligence that helps it more accurately identify the deceased. Groups that have been tracking US drone operations for years weren't convinced.
"The numbers reported by the White House today simply don't add up, and we're disappointed by that," said Federico Borello, executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict in Washington. "We're concerned that as more countries gain access to armed drone technology, it's more likely that drones will be used as a first response in conflicts and more likely civilians will pay the price."
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism said the administration's number is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian deaths it has tallied. It records such deaths on the basis local and international journalists' reports, advocacy organizations, leaked government documents, court papers and field investigations. The London-based group credited the administration's release as a welcome step toward greater transparency, but said more information on specific strikes was needed to reconcile different assessments.
Seeking to enhance safeguards for civilian protection for the rest of his presidency and beyond, Obama also signed an executive order Friday that details US policies to limit non-combatant casualties. It makes protecting civilians a central element in US military operations planning.
The order requires the government to publicize the number of strikes each year, and combatants and civilians killed. The 2016 report is due May 1, 2017.
But the directive isn't necessarily binding on the next president, who could change the policy with an executive order of his or her own.
Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, which also tracks drone strikes, said the administration's report will "do little to quell the criticism" of those who want full disclosure of civilian casualties. This would include the names of those killed and dates, locations and other details on the strikes.
Roggio, who has estimated 207 civilian deaths over the same period in Pakistan and Yemen alone, said discrepancies would narrow if the US and observers agreed on the details of several especially lethal strikes.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said Friday's release provided only scant information.
"The government continues to conceal the identities of people it has killed, the specific definitions it uses to decide who can legitimately be targeted and its investigations into credibly alleged wrongful killings," Shamsi said. "The American public can't be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely."
Naureen Shah, Amnesty International's director of national security and human rights, said it was impossible to assess the accuracy of the data without more details. Her group's investigations, she said, "tell a different story."
Nevertheless, said hailed the precedent of announcing civilian deaths as a game-changer and said it would be hard for future administrations to step away from the commitment.
Jennifer Gibson, an attorney for Reprieve, a New York-based human rights organization, said it was time for an independent investigation of whom US drones have killed and the legal framework for the program.
Gibson spoke of 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi, who she said was severely injured in Obama's first drone strike, and nine-year old Nabila Rehman, who traveled to the US in 2013 to seek answers about an attack in Pakistan that killed her grandmother.
"The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed," Gibson said.
US government releases data on 'counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities'
Bill Roggio / The Long War Journal
(July 1, 2016) – The US government released official data on "counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities," including the number of strikes, and combatant and civilian casualties. The information, which only covers operations during the Obama administration's tenure, is part of the Obama administration's efforts to provide "as much information as possible to the American people" on the controversial issue of counterterrorism strikes against jihadist groups.
The data was released today by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and covers counterterrorism operations, such as drone and manned airstrikes and special operations raids in areas outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which are considered "areas of active hostilities" where the US military is directly engaged in fighting against groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State. The countries where the raids took place are not specified, however, but likely include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
There have been 473 counterterrorism strikes since President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009 up until Dec. 31, 2015, according to the ODNI. Data for 2016 was not disclosed.
US intelligence estimates that between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in these strikes, according to the ODNI.
The ODNI report did not provide data on strikes conducted during the Bush administration. The reason for this omission was not disclosed.
The Long War Journal has tracked US counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and Yemen using press reports and other means since the first recorded strike in Pakistan in 2004. LWJ has not attempted to track strikes in Somalia and Libya due to the uncertainty of information. The numbers provided by ODNI are similar, however there are discrepancies.
LWJ has recorded 471 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen combined from Jan. 20, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2015 (343 strikes in Pakistan, 126 in Yemen). An estimated 207 civilians have been killed during that timeframe (100 killed in Pakistan, 107 in Yemen).
ODNI noted that it is difficult to assess combatant and civilian casualties after the strikes, as "there are inherent limitations … particularly when operating in non-permissive environments."
Much of the ODNI report focused on "discrepancies between US government and non-governmental assessments" from "non-governmental organizations." The "non-governmental organizations" referred to in the report are The Long War Journal, The New America Foundation, and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the three groups that track the counterterrorism strikes.
ODNI notes that the reporting of civilian casualties by the non-governmental organizations is "significantly higher" that the numbers provided by the government, which "uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable" to the three groups.
LWJ has maintained that reporting on counterterrorism operations is an extremely difficult endeavor as these counterterrorism operations nearly always take place in areas outside of the writ of governments dominated by jihadist groups with their own agendas. Terrorists often operate embedded within the civilian population to mask their activities and provide a civilian shield to discourage airstrikes.
Intelligence officials have the unenviable task of attempting to determine if a target location has civilians present, and then must assess the aftermath of a strike in areas that are considered no-go zones. Without intelligence assets on or near the location in real time, it is difficult to assess information gained from sensors.
The US government's estimates of civilian casualties may be low compared to the three groups tracking the strikes, but the estimate is not outside of the realm of possibility. It is also possible that the high estimate for civilian casualties may be correct.
ODNI did not provide data on a strike-by-strike basis, so it is difficult to reconcile the discrepancies between our data and that provided by US government. Without examining each strike on an individual basis, it is impossible to close the information gap.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.
Obama Administration Finally Releases
Its Dubious Drone Death Toll
Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept
(July 1 2016) -- In a long-anticipated gesture at transparency, the Obama administration on Friday released an internal assessment of the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in nations where the US is not officially at war.
According to the data, US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya killed between 64 and 116 civilians during the two terms of the Obama administration -- a fraction of even the most conservative estimates on drone-related killings catalogued by reporters and researchers over the same period. The government tally also reported 2,372 to 2,581 combatants killed in US airstrikes from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015.
Releasing the figures -- which appeared on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend, after seven years of selective leaks and official secrecy -- along with an executive order prioritizing the protection of civilian life in counterterrorism operations, reflected core American principles, the president asserted.
In addition to mandating an increased emphasis on civilian protection in US tactics and training, the executive order also called on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release annual reports on civilian casualties resulting from counterterrorism operations, such as drone strikes, in nations where the US is not at war -- a move that, in effect, signals the further institutionalization of borderless wars for the foreseeable future.
"As a nation, we are steadfastly committed to complying with our obligations under the law of armed conflict, including those that address the protection of civilians, such as the fundamental principles of necessity, humanity, distinction, and proportionality," Obama's order read.
While many within the legal and human rights communities applauded the voluntary disclosure of casualty data and the executive order as a step in the right direction, some felt the Friday news dump fell short in key areas.
"It's hard to credit this death count, which is lower than all independent assessments," Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, told The Intercept.
Organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that at least 200 and as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in nations where the US is not at war since Obama took office. The administration offered no individualized accounts to explain where its numbers came from, or who the civilian casualties were. Without the government addressing individual cases, disclosing the identities of those killed, or providing detailed information on the investigations undergirding its conclusions, Shamsi contended, little could be done with the disclosures.
"Without key information like this, the public can't be confident," she said.
The drone program, as it's often referred to in press accounts, is in fact a combination of both independent and overlapping efforts overseen by the military and the CIA -- with support from other intelligence community agencies such as the NSA -- that vary in intensity and management depending on the country. Under Obama, the unmanned vehicles have become both a tool and a symbol of a new age of modern American warfare, one in which the US government asserts the right to reach out and kill suspected terrorists wherever they may be.
The casualty data, presented in the form of a three-page account, claims to reflect "credible reports of non-combatant deaths drawn from all-source information, including reports from the media and non-governmental organizations." The report acknowledged that discrepancies exist between the government's tallies and those compiled by NGOs over the last several years.
NGOs provide accounts that differ not only from official figures, but also vary widely from organization to organization, the report said. "For instance, for the period between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, non-governmental organizations' estimates range from more than 200 to slightly more than 900 possible non-combatant deaths outside areas of active hostilities."
The government argued, as it has before, that it has access to information -- informants and electronic surveillance, for example -- that researchers, journalists, and human rights advocates are not privy to.
Yet the government's means of assessing the efficacy of individual strikes have been called into question in recent years. Informants on the ground for US forces can provide mistaken information, and aerial battle damage assessments, or BDAs -- a common tool for assessing drone strikes -- have at times proved unreliable.
"According to one study in Afghanistan, initial air BDAs failed to identify civilian casualties in 19 out of 21 cases subsequently confirmed by ground force investigations," noted a report on civilian protection published last month by the Open Society Foundations.
The government's report also suggested that malign actors can spread misinformation that makes its way into NGO reports, resulting in slain militants being misidentified as civilians, though it offered no specific examples of this taking place.
While the administration's report was short on details, it did push back on claims that US officials have, over the years, maintained a practice of labeling military-aged males killed in drone strikes as militants unless evidence is produced indicating otherwise. "Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants," it said.
The government's insistence that it does not label dead young men as militants by default contradicted years of reporting from multiple news organizations (just this week, former military and intelligence officials speaking to the Los Angeles Times confirmed that had been a practice under the Obama administration until recently).
In October, The Intercept published The Drone Papers, a series of reports based on classified military documents detailing the inner workings of the Pentagon's drone operations. The source of the documents, a member of the intelligence community who worked on so-called targeted-killing missions, described how military-aged males, or MAMs, killed in drone strikes are routinely labeled as enemies killed in action, EKIA, unless there is information indicating otherwise.
"If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a MAM, or was a MAM but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question," the source said. "They label them EKIA."
While the publication of the drone data is unprecedented, its lasting impact remains to be seen. Shamsi, the ACLU attorney, said Obama's executive order reflected "a positive step" for what has otherwise been a regime of near-total secrecy in matters of life and death, but it's an order "sprinkled with caveats."
"It's important to remember that the next president, whoever that president may be, can revoke this order with a pen stroke," she said.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.