Obama administration reveals civilian death toll of drone strikes

On a Friday before a holiday weekend the Obama administration revealed the civilian death toll associated with drone strikes “outside areas of active hostilities.” A brief report published by the Director of National Intelligence contained a chart estimating 64-116 “non-combatant deaths” between the date of Obama’s inauguration and the end of 2015:

DNI drone deaths

But as the NY Times reports, there is some question about just how accurate these numbers are, a fact which may have prompted the Friday release:

The official civilian death count is hundreds lower than most estimates compiled by independent organizations that try to track what the government calls targeted killings in chaotic places like tribal Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Most of the strikes have been carried out by drones, though a small number have involved traditional aircraft or cruise missiles…

In a seeming acknowledgment that the long-anticipated disclosure would be greeted with skepticism by drone critics, the administration released the numbers on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The use of a range of estimated civilian deaths underscored the fact that the government often does not know for sure the affiliations of those killed.

As for the reliability of these estimates, the bulk of the DNI report comes under the heading, “Discrepancies Between U.S. Government and Non-Governmental Assessments.” It reads in part:

In releasing these figures, the U.S. Government acknowledges that there are differences between U.S. Government assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations…Although these organizations’ reports of non-combatant deaths resulting from U.S strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities vary widely, such reporting generally estimates significantly higher figures for non-combatant deaths than is indicated by U.S. Government information. 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 DNI report goes on to suggest that the non-governmental groups are likely over-counting, i.e. considering some of the dead non-combatants when the U.S. government has reason to suspect they are combatants.

Thus, the U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by non-governmental organizations. For example, further analysis of an individual’s possible membership in an organized armed group may include, among other things: the extent to which an individual performs functions for the benefit of the group that are analogous to those traditionally performed by members of a country’s armed forces; whether that person is carrying out or giving orders to others within the group; or whether that person has undertaken certain acts that reliably connote meaningful integration into the group.

At the same time it released the figures, President Obama signed an executive order which will require the annual publication of deaths resulting from drone warfare. As the NY Times points out, “The order, which could be canceled or altered by a future president, tries to commit his successors to greater openness than he achieved in the first seven years of his presidency.”