After 7 Years, Obama Finally Announces The Number Of People Killed In Drone Strikes

Pakistani women rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 23, 2011. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MOHAMMAD SAJJAD
Pakistani women rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 23, 2011. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MOHAMMAD SAJJAD

The Obama administration finally announced on Friday the number people that have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Africa since 2009 — shedding light on a program that has for the most part remained largely in the dark to the public.

The White House estimated that during Obama’s administration, between 64 and 116 civilians had died in drone strikes, and between 2,372 to 2,581 combatants. The deaths occurred in 473 strikes from January 20, 2009 to December 31, 2015. The number only accounts for deaths from “outside areas of active hostilities,” and thus does not include deaths from drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, where airstrikes occur regularly. No figures were provided for those countries.

The announcement about the deaths — which occurred on a holiday weekend, likely to draw less attention to one of the most widely criticized aspects of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy — included no information on why, when, or where the deaths occurred, and according to many activists, was a serious underestimate of the number of deaths.

“Although we welcome this release, it’s hard to credit the government’s death count, which is lower than all independent assessments,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, in a statement. “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. The American public can’t be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely with a disclosure that’s so limited as to be virtually meaningless.”

This Man Wants Apology For Drone Strike He Says Killed His Family. The U.S. Won’t Admit It Happened…Faisal bin Ali Jaber asked for an apology. He didn’t even get an acknowledgment. The 57-year-old has been on a quest…thinkprogress.orgObama also issued an executive order on Friday detailing how to mitigate civilian casualties and calling on future administrations to release annual information about the drone program, unlike his own aggregate estimate that came after seven years. Like these newly released numbers, Obama’s executive order only calls for releasing the death toll for drone strikes “outside areas of active hostilities.”

The use of drones in counterterrorism first began under George W. Bush, but was significantly expanded under Obama. Its use, and the serious lack of transparency about the program, have been widely criticized by human rights groups.

One of the biggest concerns is about the use of drones in “signature strikes.” As Foreign Policy has reported, the “name refers to the fact that the targets — by virtue of their ages, actions, and locations inside countries known to house terrorist operatives — bear the ‘signature’ of militant activity.” The strikes have been responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths, and it’s not clear exactly how people become targets of the strikes or how many civilians have died in the strikes.

Estimates for the number of civilian deaths by drone vary widely among human rights groups and NGOs — but they’re far higher than the numbers released on Friday, a discrepancy that wasn’t really explained. As the Intercept reported, “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 U.S. is not at war since Obama took office.”

In March, after a drone strike killed over 150 people in Somalia who the White House claimed were Al-Shabaab militants, the Obama administration announced that it would release the number of civilians and terrorism suspects killed in drone strikes since 2009 “in the coming weeks.”