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Obama's Deadly Drone War Is Still Shrouded In Secrecy

The American people don't know how many civilians drone strikes have killed, or the legal rationale behind the bombs.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army


Nearly six months ago, President Obama promised more transparency and tighter policies around targeted killings. In a  speech, Obama vowed that the U.S. would only use force against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” It would fire only when there was “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed or injured, and when capture was not feasible.

The number of drone strikes has  dropped this year, but they’ve continued to make headlines. On Friday, a U.S. drone  killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban. A few days earlier came the first  drone strike in Somalia in nearly two years. How much has changed since the president’s speech?

We don’t know the U.S. count of civilian deaths

The administration says  that it has a count of civilian deaths, and that there is a “ wide gap” between U.S. and independent figures. But the administration won’t release its own figures.

Outside estimates of total civilian deaths since 2002  range from just over 200 to more than 1,000.  The Pakistani government has given  three different numbers: 400, 147, and 67.

McClatchy and the  Washington Post obtained intelligence documents showing that for long stretches of time, the CIA estimated few or no civilian deaths. The documents also confirmed the use of  signature strikes, in which the U.S. targets people without knowing their identity. The CIA categorized many of those killed as simply “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” The Post wrote that the agency sometimes designated “militants” with what seemed like circumstantial or vague evidence, such as “men who were ‘probably’ involved in cross-border attacks” in Afghanistan.

The administration reportedly  curtailed signature strikes this year, though the new guidelines don’t necessarily preclude them. A White House factsheet released around Obama’s speech  said that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” It did not say that people must be identified. (In any case, the U.S. has not officially acknowledged the policy of signature strikes.)

Attorney General Eric Holder  confirmed only that four Americans have been killed by drone strikes since 2009:  Anwar al Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son,  Abdulrahman,Samir Khan, and  Jude Kenan Mohammed. Holder said that only the elder Awlaki was “specifically targeted,” but did not explain how the others came to be killed.

Although Obama said that this disclosure was intended to “ facilitate transparency and debate,” since then, the administration  has not commented on specific allegations of civilian deaths.

We don’t know exactly who can be targeted

The list of groups that the military considers “associated forces” of Al Qaeda  is classified. The administration has  declared that it targets members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and “elements” of Al Shabaab, but there are still questions about how the U.S. determines that an individual belonging to those groups is in fact a “continuing and imminent threat.” (After the terror alarm that led to the closing of U.S. embassies this summer, officials  told the New York Times they had “expanded the scope of people [they] could go after” in Yemen.)

This ties into the debate over civilian casualties: The government would seem to consider some people legitimate targets  that others don’t.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth studies of particular strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. They include  eyewitness reportsof civilian deaths. (Most of the deaths investigated happened before the Obama administration’s new policies were announced, although the administration has not said when those guidelines went into effect.) The reports also raised questions of the  legalityof specific  strikes, questioning whether the deaths were all unavoidable casualties of legitimate attacks.  

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