WASHINGTON — The Obama Administration said Friday it has killed anywhere from 64 to 116 innocent civilians in its drone wars outside the traditional combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The numbers released Friday are hundreds lower than various independent organizations — including human rights groups and investigative reporters — have estimated them to be. The London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which tracks every U.S.-drone strike in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, has estimated that 634 civilians were killed in Pakistan alone since 2009.
The Obama Administration has quietly copped in the past to killing innocent civilians when it uses drones to take out militants. But Friday’s announcement is the first time the White House has admitted that civilian casualties are not one-off events in its drone warfare campaign. Instead, they’re systemic, albeit occasional, casualties that come with pulling remote triggers.
The report does not say where those strikes took place, or how many casualties were from each geographical region. The administration has been known to use drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
“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. “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.”
Friday’s release is a marked — albeit measured — shift in the Obama Administration’s drone policy, which has notoriously been shrouded in secrecy. Detailed, on-the-ground reports of civilian casualties have long been a part of the drone conversation, but never before has there been a high-level audit or policy discussion of the controversial program.
“It is more important than ever for this administration to define both the justifications and the statistics related to all who have been killed by U.S. strikes, not only to be more transparent about its data and policy standards, but about who it counts as a civilian,” said Naureen Shah, the Director of Amnesty International’s Security and Human Rights Program.
The White House also unveiled a new executive order that will tighten rules around drones. That order will require regular reports from the Director of National Intelligence’s office on how many strikes the White House has taken and how many civilians have been killed in those strikes. There’s interest from Congress to pass a law requiring those reports, ensuring that no president can ever again run its drone program with so much secrecy.
“It is important that we continue to acknowledge those incidents, learn from them, hold ourselves accountable and be as transparent as possible,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is the vice-chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “I also believe that the release of this data will help to undercut inflated estimates of civilian casualties. As the technology to strike in nonpermissive environments proliferates, we must set a standard that we can hold up to other nations."
The report comes three years after Obama promised at a National Defense University speech to shed more light on its drone program, which it has slowly made its weapon-of-choice in the war on terror — it has used the weapon ten times as much as its predecessors in the Bush Administration.