In a lengthy front-page story last week exploring President Obama's use of drone strikes incountries including Pakistan and Yemen, the New York Times reported that the president had "embraced a disputed method forcounting civilian casualties that did little to box him in." Citing "several administration officials," the Times reported thatthis method "in effect counts all military-age males in a strikezone as combatants ... unless there is explicit intelligenceposthumously proving them innocent." The Times reported that thisstandard allowed counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to claim in June 2011 that for nearly a year "there hasn't been a singlecollateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precisionof the capabilities that we've been able to develop." Human rights groups and others have expressed outrage at thereported counting method. And in the last few days alone, 27 "suspected militants" have been killed in three drone strikes in Pakistan, including thereported No. 2 of al Qaeda. We wanted to lay out exactly what's known (not much) about theapparent policy, what's not (a lot), and what the White House issaying in response to the Times report. |
Crucially, the White House has done nothing to knock the storydown. I gave the White House a chance to respond, and it declinedto comment on the record. But speaking on condition of anonymity,an administration official acknowledged that the administrationdoes not always know the names or identities of everyone in alocation marked for a drone strike. "As a general matter, it [the Times report] is not wrong that if agroup of fighting age males are in a home where we know they areconstructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed thatall of them are in on that effort," the official said.
"We'retalking about some of the most remote places in the world, and someof the most paranoid organizations on the planet. If you're therewith them, they know you, they trust you, there's a reason [you're]there." When we asked a White House spokesperson about how the U.S. knowseven the number of people killed in strikes, they told us to speakthe CIA. The CIA did not immediately respond to our request.
Another thing that's unclear is whether the controversial countingmethod is a new policy. Sen. Saxby Chambliss , R-Ga., the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told Fox News last week that he was not aware of any change in the policy of howcorpses are counted, but that if there had been a change, hiscommittee should be briefed. Several people in the human rights community told ProPublica thatthe metric for counting civilians described in the Times reportrepresents a new and troubling standard. "We have never before heard anything quite like the idea that ifyou have to be in a certain place and you happen to be of a certainage, that in and of itself can make you targetable," said Gabor Rona , international legal director at Human Rights First and formerlegal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
It's also not clear whether the policy applies to all covert dronestrikes or just ones done by the CIA. Asked last week about the Times report, White House Press SecretaryJay Carney told reporters the president "goes to extraordinary measures" to avoidcivilian casualties. "We have at our disposal tools that make avoidance of civiliancasualties much easier, and tools that make precision targetingpossible in ways that have never existed in the past," Carneyargued. But analysts point out strikes can go awry even if a missile hitsits programmed target. "Any military official will tell you your precision is only as goodas your intelligence sources and your intelligence analysis," said Naureen Shah , associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human RightsProject at Columbia Law School.
"How much do we really know aboutSomalia and Yemen and Pakistan? We have errors in targeting inAfghanistan and we've been there for a decade." Shah, who is working on a study on civilian harm from covert dronestrikes, said she was not surprised by the Obama administration'sreported standard for counting civilians given the extremely lowestimates of civilian casualties leaked by administration officialsover the years. The Times story last week, for example, quotes a "senioradministration official" claiming that the number of civilianskilled by drone strikes under Obama in Pakistan is in the "singledigits." That's in stark contrast to outside estimates. Independentorganizations analyzing news reports and other sources have putcivilian deaths from drone strikes from the high double digits in Pakistan alone to the high triple digits including countries like Yemen and Somalia. This story was originally published by ProPublica .
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