WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s administration estimated Friday that between 64 and 116 civilians have died during the years 2009-1015 from U.S. drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the same time span, the administration said between 2,372 and 2,581 militants had been taken out by drones.
In an executive order, Obama tasked his administration with working in a uniform way to ensure that civilians aren’t killed by drones.
Agencies “shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians,” Obama wrote in the order.
Human rights groups are unlikely to be satisfied by the methods the administration used to calculate the figures and the geographic boundaries of the disclosure. Even ahead of the report’s release, they dismissed the anticipated tally as being too low.
The White House also announced Friday that Obama had signed an executive order telling U.S. agencies they “shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday the report was aimed at providing greater transparency.
“The president believes that our counter-terrorism strategy is more effective and has more credibility when we’re as transparent as possible,” Earnest said. “There are obviously limitations for transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this. But the fact is, these operations that will be the substance of an announcement today are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn’t even confirm existed.”
Earnest continued, “It’s an indication of how far that we’ve come that we are now in a position where we are describing the process for making decisions about these kinds of operations and being rather transparent, with not just the American public but with the world, about the outcome of those operations even when the outcome is not entirely consistent with our intentions.”
Ahead of the report’s release, human rights groups were already dismissing what they asserted would be a woefully low estimate of the true number of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes.
Counts of civilian drone deaths have always caused controversy, given the difficulty in investigating the aftermath of strikes and unreliable reporting from on-the-ground sources.
While the CIA drone program is widely reported upon and even referenced by government officials, it remains classified and individual strikes aren’t typically confirmed by the agency.
That’s left outside groups — like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation — to piece together reports of strikes to account for civilian deaths.
But distinguishing between militants and civilians is often difficult, and also has caused discrepancies. While some civilian deaths are clear-cut — as when a 2014 U.S. strike on a wedding party in Yemen killed 12 — others involve targets whose identities are less clear.
Obama has insisted on more transparency in the drone program, and in 2013 unveiled policy reforms he said would bring a new legal framework to the use of drone technology.
But that’s done little to quiet the outrage from human rights groups, who say Obama has expanded a legally questionable killing regime.
“What little the Obama Administration has previously said on the record about the drone program has been shown by the facts on the ground, and even the U.S. government’s own internal documents, to be false,” said the U.S. human rights group Reprieve in a statement made before the White House report’s release.
“It has to be asked what bare numbers will mean if they omit even basic details such as the names of those killed and the areas, even the countries, they live in,” the group wrote Thursday.