Happy Flag-Waving Drone Document Dump

ODNI (update–and now I Con the Record) has released its report on the number of drone deaths. The overview is that the US intelligence community is reporting (more on that in a second) far, far fewer drone deaths than credible outside researchers do. (TBIJ, New American, Long War Journal)

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The IC numbers are for strikes occurring outside areas of active hostilities, which currently includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but might have — the report doesn’t say one way or another — included other places, like Pakistani tribal lands, when these drone strikes happened.

The report acknowledges that this number differs dramatically from these of outside researchers, though it doesn’t include a footnote to permit those who don’t already know the players to compare, which betrays a real lack of confidence in its own analysis. A footnote would also permit readers to see the degree to which NGOs have done granular analysis, as compared to ODNI’s 3 line table.

Plus, it doesn’t acknowledge this discrepancy until after it suggests these other numbers — which I believe are actually more consistent with each other than the IC’s numbers are with them — come from terrorist propaganda, a claim it repeats a second time before the end of the 3-page report.

The large volume of pre- and post-strike data available to the U.S. Government can enable analysts to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, conduct detailed battle damage assessments, and separate reliable reporting from terrorist propaganda or from media reports that may be based on inaccurate information.

In releasing these figures, the U.S. Government acknowledges that there are differences between U.S. Government assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations. Reports from non-governmental organizations can include both aggregate data regarding non-combatant deaths as well as case studies addressing particular strikes, and generally rely on a combination of media reporting and, in some instances, field research conducted in areas of reported strikes. Although these organizations’ reports of non-combatant deaths resulting from U.S strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities vary widely, such reporting generally estimates significantly higher figures for non-combatant deaths than is indicated by U.S. Government information. For instance, for the period between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015, non-governmental organizations’ estimates range from more than 200 to slightly more than 900 possible non-combatant deaths outside areas of active hostilities.

[snip]

Finally, non-governmental organizations’ reports of counterterrorism strikes attributed to the U.S. Government—particularly their identification of non-combatant deaths—may be further complicated by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations, in local media reports on which some non-governmental estimates rely.

The IC report also suggests that it derives such a low civilian casualty figure by defining belligerent broadly, to include people like drivers and cooks — but don’t you worry, that doesn’t mean that every single military aged male counts as a belligerent (I will check but I suspect the IC’s numbers likely could not be so low without counting some women as belligerents, which might happen if they do things like cook).

Non-combatants are individuals who may not be made the object of attack under applicable international law. The term “non-combatant” does not include an individual who is part of a belligerent party to an armed conflict, an individual who is taking a direct part in hostilities, or an individual who is targetable in the exercise of U.S. national self-defense. Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.

[snip]

The U.S. Government draws on all available information (including sensitive intelligence) to determine whether an individual is part of a belligerent party fighting against the United States in an armed conflict; taking a direct part in hostilities against the United States; or otherwise targetable in the exercise of national self-defense. Thus, the U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations. For example, further analysis of an individual’s possible membership in an organized armed group may include, among other things: the extent to which an individual performs functions for the benefit of the group that are analogous to those traditionally performed by members of a country’s armed forces; whether that person is carrying out or giving orders to others within the group; or whether that person has undertaken certain acts that reliably connote meaningful integration into the group.

The ACLU is due to get more documents from the precipitating FOIA that may explain better how broadly the government has defined belligerent (remember–these strikes are all in areas outside of active hostilities).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is this repeated language:

a summary of information provided to the DNI

The assessed range of non-combatant deaths provided to the DNI

The information that was provided to the DNI

based on the information provided to the DNI

according to information provided to the DNI

That is, the ODNI may be releasing this information. But they’re sure as hell not vouching for it. I find that particularly interesting given that, in May, I had to explain to ODNI that the National Security Letter numbers they were getting (and publishing in transparency reports) from FBI were probably unreliable.

These numbers don’t even, apparently, reflect the kind of rigor that would involve an outside agency reviewing the CIA’s numbers. Instead, the CIA (and presumably, in more limited cases, DOD) provided numbers to ODNI, and ODNI is — as ordered by the President — passing those numbers on.

At least you can be sure this isn’t terrorist propaganda.

Update: Micah Zenko gets at what I find to be the most striking aspect of this: the disparity between the number of strikes. Averaging the 3 main trackers, Zenko figures there were 578 strikes, as compared to the claimed ODNI number of 473. This is a huge discrepancy (the government only counts 82% of what the NGOs collectively count as strikes).

Such a big discrepancy may come from various places, two obvious ones being strikes considered to be in areas of active hostilities (say, the Pakistani border) not being counted in the ODNI tally, or strikes conducted by the home country (chiefly, Pakistan or Yemen, but I’d include Saudi Arabia in there). Given how low the civilian casualties are, then, it’s possible ODNI is counting as domestic the most lethal strikes.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Well, America is In-De-Pen-Dent, so it can do whatever the hell it wants to, kill whomever it wants to, and nothing can stop it. Certainly not the consciences of a bunch of politicians.

  2. Peterr says:

    In releasing these figures, the U.S. Government acknowledges that there are differences between U.S. Government assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations. . . . Although these organizations’ reports of non-combatant deaths resulting from U.S strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities vary widely, such reporting generally estimates significantly higher figures for non-combatant deaths than is indicated by U.S. Government information.

    I think there must have been another paragraph that got edited out somehow, that should have appeared right above the final paragraph of the report. After discussing the likely methodologies employed by the various outside groups that generally arrived at higher figures, and offering explanations about their limitations, surely there was a paragraph written that said something like this about the limitations of the in-house figures:

    Even with the above explanations, the discrepancies between the US government information provided to the DNI and the general consensus of outside NGOs forces us to also ask serious questions about the information we have received from the various US government sources. We cannot rule out the worrisome possibility that the DNI is not being given a full picture of casualties by the relevant agencies. These agencies have a vested interest in maximizing the reported number of combatants killed and minimizing the reported number of non-combatant deaths, so as to cast themselves in the best possible light. As our own history has taught us, US officials are not above spreading exactly this kind of misinformation themselves.

    I’m sure this omission was a simple oversight.

    • martin says:

      quote”I’m sure this omission was a simple oversight.”unquote

      right. HAHAHAHAHA!

      Simple oversight. Just like Comey will make a simple oversight of the rule of law when it comes time to hand over the FBI’s recommendations for prosecuting Clinton. Lynch has said she will abide.

      Hahahahahahahahaha! These fucking criminals mock the very nature of law. This is why..at some point..a contingent of American gun owners will say …fuck you. Enough is enough.

  3. Trevanion says:

    “…complicated by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors..,”

    Based on a redacted version I once saw, I believe the above phrase is also contained in the secret “fifth verse” of Francis Scott Key’s interminable Star Spangled Banner, which still awaits declassification but is informally known by its first line “O Methods We Share, By the Time This Shit Flies.”

    Happy 4th.

  4. Hieronymus Howard says:

     
    Why do Moslems hate us?  We have to wonder why?  We insert ourselves into their lives for years on end & blow up innocents with drones & consider them “collateral damage.”
     
    There is no hyphen in nongovernmental, nor in noncombatant.  So in addition to having a chronic problem with fudging numbers, our government (no pressing need to capitalize the word) has proofreading issues.

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