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How CNN Analyst Peter Bergen is Misleading the Public On Killer Drones

CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen produced an error-ridden graph showing that no civilians have been killed in Pakistan this year by US drones.

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Last year, for example, we learned that a 2009 attack in Pakistan which had initially been reported as killing alleged militants, women and children appeared to have been a strike on a child suicide bomber training camp, run by the Taliban. More recently, we incorporated evidence from sworn affidavits filed in the London High Court, relating to the deaths of many civilians in March 2011.

In contrast NAF’s data represents at best a partial snapshot of an attack, often based on just a few media reports on the day. No effort appears to be made to update, amend or correct its data.

In his most recent article for CNN looking at civilian deaths in Pakistan, Bergen cites a major Associated Press investigation into drone strike casualties published in February of this year. As the Bureau reported at the time, that investigation, based on 80 witness statements, uncovered previously unknown evidence of civilian deaths in a number of strikes. We amended our data records accordingly, to reflect these findings.

NAF has yet to change any of its records – despite Bergen citing AP’s study in his own defence. So while AP reports that seven civilians died alongside seven Taliban on August 14 2010, NAF continues to state only that ’7-13 militants were killed.’

The cumulative effect of all these omissions and errors is that NAF’s data substantially under-estimates both the overall numbers of those killed, and the reports of civilians who have died in Pakistan strikes.

In August 2010, in response to the Bureau publishing its Pakistan data, the US government issued its first overall estimate of the numbers killed in CIA drone strikes since 2001, stating that approximately 2,050 had died – all but fifty of them combatants.

Eleven months on, and 47 strikes later, a minimum of 262 further deaths have occurred in Pakistan. Yet the New America Foundation still gives a low estimate of 1,870 killed. That indicates that its estimates are some 400 below the CIA’s own numbers.

The New America Foundation has undoubtedly done valuable work in recent years in bringing to the attention of the US public the scale of America’s covert wars. Its data represents a useful snapshot of most strikes, a helpful base upon which further research can be built.

But NAF cannot claim that its data represents an accurate record of what we publicly know about US drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. And without radically overhauling its methodology, Bergen and NAF cannot credibly continue to offer up such precise estimates of ‘civilian deaths’ in Pakistan.

This article was originally published at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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