US reveals death toll from terror strikes outside war zones (The Hill)

The Obama administration has conducted 473 drone strikes outside of war zones between 2009 and 2016, killing somewhere between 64 and 116 civilians, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said Friday.

The DNI also concluded that between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants were killed in those strikes during that time period, which was measured from Jan. 20, 2009 through Dec. 30, 2015. 

The statistics did not include strikes conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, or so-called "areas of active hostilities." 

The report doesn't specify locations, but the U.S. has conducted targeted strikes outside of major conflict zones in places like Somalia, Libya, Yemen and tribal areas of Pakistan.

The Obama administration released the statistics after years of pressure from both lawmakers and human rights groups and activists. 

"For years, I have pushed the Administration and Congress for an annual report on the number of combatants and noncombatants killed in counterterrorism strikes outside of active theaters of armed conflict,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

“Today's decision to release seven years of this data in aggregate form is an important step forward,” he said, adding that he hoped the release of the numbers would “undercut inflated estimates” of civilian casualties. 

The civilian death toll is hundreds lower than estimates compiled by non-governmental organizations, human rights groups and activists. For example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates a minimum of 492 civilian deaths across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and a high of potentially 1,183.

“The White House’s assertion that its drone-enabled killing spree resulted in at most 116 civilian deaths represents an outrageous underplaying of the tragedy and destruction that has devastated families in Pakistan and other countries over the years,” said Robert Greenwald, director of “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.” 

Worse, Greenwald added, the report included an admission that officials don’t always know how many civilians are being killed. 

And human rights group Reprieve panned the administration’s report a day before its release, saying: “What little the Obama administration has previously said on the record about the drone program has been shown by the facts on the ground, and even the U.S. government’s own internal documents, to be false.” 

The DNI said the statistics reflect "consideration of credible reports" drawn from “all-source” information, including open-source information such as from media and non-governmental organizations.  

The figures include cases in which there was insufficient information to determine whether the deceased was a combatant. 

The administration acknowledged in the report the discrepancy between unofficial counts and the numbers released, but argued the government has access to information that outside groups do not and that some non-governmental reports may be hindered by bad actors spreading misinformation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said she has also urged the administration to release the statistics for years, supported that argument. 

"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," she said in a statement commending the report's release. 

In conjunction with Friday’s report, President Obama signed an executive order that says protecting civilians should be a priority and requires the government to disclose civilian deaths annually.

“The president believes that it is important to put an architecture in place that reflects the kinds of reforms that this administration has implemented to ensure that proper steps are taken to avoid civilian casualties and to ensure that the operations that are undertaken are consistent with our national security goals,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing. 

The order lays out the “best practices” already used by the government to protect civilians and directs agencies to keep up such measures in the future, according to a fact sheet released by the White House. 

The order also says the United States should consider “credible reporting” by non-governmental organizations in its post-strike reviews and provides a mechanism to convene government officials to consult on civilian casualty trends.

While human rights groups gave tepid praise to the administration for releasing the figures, they urged the administration to disclose more information on the U.S. strike program. 

Such information, according to the groups, would include the deceased’s identities, how it classifies individuals as “combatants,” the name of armed groups that the combatants belong to, the legal basis for using lethal force, strike locations and dates, and more information about investigations into civilian deaths. 

"Today’s casualty data release and issuance of the executive order is a concrete step in the right direction, but more information is still needed for the public to meaningfully evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of the targeted killing program,” Human Rights First’s Rita Siemion said in a written statement. 

Other organizations were harsher.

“Although we welcome this release, it’s hard to credit the government’s death count, which is lower than all independent assessments,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. 

“The American public can’t be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely with a disclosure that’s so limited as to be virtually meaningless.”

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, added, “It's important to remember that the next president can revoke this order with a stroke of a pen.” 

“Both the courts and Congress have a role to play in ensuring that the public has the information it needs in order to understand and assess the government's policies, he said.