Key Area of Dispute on Drone Numbers: Number of Strikes

Dianne Feinstein is out with a statement applauding that I Con the Record has released drone kill numbers that — she suggests — proves the spooks know something we don’t and that the number of civilian casualties hasn’t been that high.

“I want to commend the administration for taking this important step toward transparency by releasing information on the number of civilian deaths as a result of U.S. drone strikes. I believe more can be done, but this release of data is a good start.

“I’ve been calling on the administration to release drone strike data for years. Varying numbers have been tallied by outside organizations but as today’s report makes clear, the government has access to unique information to help determine the number of civilian deaths. The American people should be able to weigh the necessity of counterterrorism programs with as much information as possible.

“I do believe that great care is taken to avoid noncombatant casualties during drone strike operations. Since 2009, the Senate Intelligence Committee has devoted significant time and attention to targeted strikes by drones, with a specific focus on civilian casualties.

“While a single civilian death is one too many, I believe this program is more precise than many alternatives such as strikes with cruise missiles, where far more civilians would be at risk.”

A fair response to Feinstein, I think, is to point to this piece from the Human Rights Watch researcher who tallied their count of civilian deaths in Yemen. As she notes, counting just the cases she has investigated on the ground would say there were only 7 other civilian casualties later in Yemen and in other theaters.

The US strikes on Al-Majalah in December 2009 killed 14 fighters with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—but they also killed 41 Bedouin civilians, more than two-thirds of them women and children, according to a Yemeni government probe. In an investigation for Human Rights Watch, I tallied the same toll. Yet the US government has never publicly acknowledged the Al-Majalah killings. Instead, two classified diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks revealed, the Obama administration made a concerted effort to conceal its role in the attack.

The White House release on July 1 of casualty figures for airstrikes outside conventional war zones since 2009 should have shed light on how many civilians were killed in attacks such as the one in Al-Majalah. Instead, its data dump, at the start of a holiday weekend, continues President Barack Obama’s obfuscation of its lethal strike program against armed groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Even if the government’s definition of a “combatant” were fully consistent with international law, which only applies to armed conflict situations, the release raises more questions than it answers.

[snip]

Did the US kill only 7 civilians in 466 strikes? In 2012-13, I led Human Rights Watch investigations into seven of the US counterterrorism strikes in Yemen from 2009 to 2013 that were alleged to have killed civilians. We visited strike sites when possible, examined the remnants of ordnance, and interviewed a range of witnesses, relatives, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials—corroborating our findings in ways that the DNI cannot simply dismiss. We found that at least 57 of those killed were civilians, along with possibly 14 others, 12 of them in a strike on a wedding convoy. Subtracting our numbers from the DNI’s minimum estimates leaves only seven civilian deaths in the 466 strikes that we did not investigate. That would be a remarkably low toll. But based on the obscure data the Obama administration revealed last week, we cannot know if it is accurate.

Viewed this way, it’s easy to see how ODNI’s numbers cannot add up. There must be some more basic reason their numbers are so different from every other outlet, having to do with methodology or scope. I’ve pointed to some potential explanations: CIA didn’t hand over all their numbers to ODNI, they didn’t include everything we’d include in terms of areas outside active hostilities, some strikes (and the al-Majalah one would be a likely candidate) were attributed to either the home country or some other ally (cough, KSA), even if the US conducted the strike; remember the US did a lot of “side payment” strikes in Pakistan to win the right to do our own strikes.

In other words, if “side payment” strikes — in Pakistan and Yemen (some of the latter of which may have been done for Saudi Arabia) — were the ones that killed a bunch of civilians, they might not show up in I Con the Record’s numbers.

But here’s how it would seem we could move forward: try to come to some agreement as to how many actual strikes are.

As Micah Zenko pointed out, there is a very big discrepancy between the numbers of total strikes counted by NGOs and the government. Effectively, the Administration doesn’t count 18% of the known air strikes as their own (based off the NGO average).

It’s easy to see where a disagreement about individual casualties, and of what type, would come from, but not of airstrikes themselves. Unless airstrikes generally assumed to be US airstrikes are being counted as someone else’s.

Update: Fixed that Yemen would be the recipient of side payment strikes, not Saudi Arabia.

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.

9 replies
  1. GKJames says:

    Who does the White House think they’re fooling with the shell games? It simply confirms that the president is as obtuse as any Republican. More articulate, certainly, but just as morally and ethically bankrupt. If I wanted an administration that interfered with the proper workings of the republic — for which an honest set of facts on what the government’s up to is imperative — I’d have voted for McCain/Palin, if only for the entertainment value.

  2. martin says:

    Dianne Feinstein is out with a statement applauding that I Con the Record has released drone kill numbers that — she suggests — proves the spooks know something we don’t and that the number of civilian casualties hasn’t been that high.”unquote

    Yeah, well where was this stinking cunt when those innocent Pakistani drone victim families appeared before congress, hmmmmmmmmmmm?

    quote”A fair response to Feinstein, I think, is to point to this piece from the Human Rights Watch researcher who tallied their count of civilian deaths in Yemen.”unquote

    Fair response???? To Feinstein?? Surely you fucking jest. The ONLY “fair” response to this scumsucking maggot is spitting in her ugly face while calling her a goddamned liar. On the other hand, it might be fair to shove her stinking face in a pool of blood from an innocent child incinerated by those motherfucking war criminals she “congratulates” for being so transparent. Ha. Make me puke. As for “counterterrorism”.. what the fuck does she think these insidious Drones do to villages full of people who hear them coming????? It TERRORIZES THEM!!!!!!! If anything, notwithstanding the rest of the scum in the IC…I only pray this sack of shit gets a taste of “terror” some day.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    “There must be some more basic reason their numbers are so different from every other outlet, having to do with methodology or scope.”

    Yes, there is. They lie.

    • David Swanson says:

      They lie but they do probably lie in some particular manner. Short of ending the murders, they could release the videos and name the names of who they are deeming civilian.

      • rugger9 says:

        The numbers game is an old racket in government, look back to an old cartoon compendium (“Here and Now” by Herbert Block) and you’ll see how little has changed in 60+ years. Part of that numbers game is how a person is classified when they are waxed in a drone strike, and it appears to me that the USG says everyone is a combatant unless otherwise proven six ways to Sunday and then they might think about a reassignment. After all, both Al Awlaki and his teenager nephew, both USA citizens killed by a drone strike are “officially” terrorists even though there is little actual evidence of terrorism for Awlaki and none whatsoever for the nephew. All in all, we need to see the criteria and this can perhaps be deduced from the names.
        *
        Keep in mind that DiFi is not bleeding-heart liberal especially on security state issues so frustration on her part is something of a big deal.

  4. Bardi says:

    Feinstein is very good at confusing the issue. She knows for a fact that if a drone is refueled by, say, Argentina, then Argentina, for purposes of US propaganda, gets the blame for the innocents killed while the US gets the status for killing “bad guys”. Her calculus is disingenuous and likely bolsters her “investments”.

    She really needs to be run off.

  5. Peterr says:

    But here’s how it would seem we could move forward: try to come to some agreement as to how many actual strikes are.

    This assumes that the government *wants* to move forward. The only reason they would want to do this would be to be able to assure a skeptical world that their drones don’t kill that many civilians. They’d have to admit to every strike they took, as well as the damage it caused. In return, what do they gain? Even if you grant that they’d reveal all their information, they’d get only a marginal uptick in their reputation in the region and the world. They’d always be suspected of hiding strikes and hiding casualties to make the numbers look better — and given their past record on transparency vis-a-vis NGOs (esp human rights orgs), there is good reason to suspect this.
    .
    I cannot see that the PTB would think that the marginal benefit would be worth the effort it would take to convince DOD and IC folks to allow this data to be revealed. “Let our enemies wonder about our capabilities and our effectiveness, and to hell with greater transparency to try to win the support of folks who’d never believe us anyway.”

  6. Peterr says:

    Also, is it an accident that I’m getting spam from the Discovery Channel Store advertising “Cyber Week In July: Huge Savings on Drones and MORE!”?

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