3 Reasons We Can't Believe President Obama's Dramatically Low Figures on Drone Deaths

After years of demands for accountability from drone survivors and their supporters, the Obama administration on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend finally released the death toll of U.S. bombings conducted outside of what the White House deems traditional battle zones. The result is the stunningly lowball claim that 64 to 116 civilians have been killed.

The Obama administration says that between 2009 and the end of 2015, 473 strikes—the vast majority of them drones—killed roughly 2,500 "terrorist combatants." Yet, the White House did not reveal the most basic information about who these people were, where they were killed, and how these claims can be verified.

Such omissions are concerning because the numbers fall far below figures offered by independent monitors and journalistic organizations. For example, journalist Chris Woods noted at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that "the public record suggests a far worse reality. According to Bureau monitoring, between 2009 and 2015 an estimated 256 civilians have died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. A further 124 civilians are likely to have been slain in Yemen, with less than 10 non-combatants estimated killed in Somalia strikes. Similar tallies are reported by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal."

In explaining this discrepancy, the White House said that independent reports may be marred by “terrorist propaganda.”

Notably, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were named as areas of “active hostilities” and were therefore excluded from the calculations. This is despite the fact that Congress has never held a vote about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria and Obama has repeatedly declared that the war in Afghanistan is coming to a close.

“The White House finally releases long-sought information on civilian casualties from drone (and some warplane) strikes—late in the afternoon on the Friday before the 4th of July weekend,” Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies, told AlterNet. “And it lumps seven years’ worth of its claimed figures together, so no way to investigate whether any are true.”

Jennier Gibson, an attorney for the UK-based charity Reprieve, said in a press statement, “The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed. Back in 2011, it claimed to have killed ‘only 60′ civilians. Does it really expect us to believe that it has killed only four more civilians since then, despite taking hundreds more strikes?"

“The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed," Gibson continued. "Today’s announcement tells us nothing about 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi, who was severely injured in Obama’s first drone strike. Reports suggest Obama knew he had killed civilians that day. Is Faheem’s family in those numbers? They make no mention of nine-year old Nabila Rehman. She traveled all the way to the U.S. in 2013 to try to get answers about the strike that killed her grandmother, Mamana Bibi. Will she now get the same apology as an American and Italian hostage killed in another strike?"

In March, the White House announced to much fanfare that it would release a public account of the people killed by U.S. drones during Obama’s presidency on what the government deems nontraditional battlegrounds, like Yemen and Somalia.

"In the coming weeks, the administration will publicly release an assessment of combatant and noncombatant casualties resulting from strikes taken outside areas of active hostilities since 2009," Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco said at a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations on March 7. "Going forward, these figures will be provided annually. Because we know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies."

Of course, public disclosure of the numbers of people killed is no substitute for a legal or ethical justification of U.S. drone wars. But a report released by the U.K.-based legal charity ahead of the Obama administration’s announcement notes that whatever information the White House discloses, there is reason to be skeptical. According to the investigation, “every previous (rare) public, on-record statement made by the Obama administration on the program has been shown to be false or deeply misleading.”

Here are three lies and misleading remarks from the Obama administration, as outlined in a report by the UK-based charity Reprieve, that should make us very skeptical of his newest disclosures.

1. There have been no civilian casualties.

In June 2011, Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

Yet according to the Reprieve report:

We now know that the CIA themselves knew the statement to be false at the time Brennan made it—having recorded at least one civilian casualty in April 2011, according to leaked documents. Moreover, an independent investigation of that period by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) found at least 45 civilian casualties, with 15 further strikes where civilian casualties were “likely.”

Among those killed were dozens of tribal elders who gathered in March 2011 to resolve a dispute over a chromite mine. Later news reports stated that the CIA had taken the strike “in retaliation” for a dispute with the Pakistani government over a CIA contractor who had shot dead two people in Lahore.

2. Near certainty only “terrorists” are killed.

In May 2013, Obama said: “America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.  And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.”

Reprieve’s report notes that this claim has been “contradicted by internal CIA documents which, according to McClatchy, “show[ed] that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees.” In addition, his 2013 policy on the ‘Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations’ has since been undermined by revelations that ‘signature strikes,’ which target people based on patterns of behavior without knowing their identities, have secretly been allowed to continue in Pakistan and possibly Yemen.”

Not to mention that Obama claims the right to roll back these “near certainty” standards where he sees fit, for example, in Iraq and Syria.

3. We don’t target innocents.

Euphemistically termed “signature strikes” refer to the military and CIA’s practice of targeting people, not because of who they are, but because they exhibit behavior deemed suspicious, according to drone footage. Former ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told the Daily Beast’s Tara McKelvey in 2012, “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40. My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s—well, a chump who went to a meeting.”

The Reprieve report notes:

Crucially, in 2015, it emerged that far from ending the practice of ‘signature strikes,’ the President had in fact signed a secret Executive Order allowing such strikes to continue in Pakistan, directly contradicting his public stance. In June 2016 evidence also emerged that signature strikes were on-going in Yemen as well, likely through a similar secret policy.

A U.S. drone killed the family of Yemeni Faisal bin Ali Jaber in 2012, and he has spent the years since pressing the Obama administration for the most basic accountability or even a simple apology. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful, but his demands deserve to be heard. “What is the value of a human life?” he wrote in 2015. “This seems to be the Obama administration's cold calculation: Yemeni lives are cheap. They cost the President no political or moral capital.”

These are the challenges Obama should be forced to answer to.

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