New Report Highlights US Legacy of Lies on Civilian Drone Deaths

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New Report Highlights US Legacy of Lies on Civilian Drone Deaths

Rights group exposes contradictions between government statements on civilian casualties and independent reports showing much higher figures

The figures, which are set to come annually from now on, will not include details such as names and countries of origin. (Photo: Debra Sweet/flickr/cc)

In anticipation of an impending White House announcement on civilian deaths from drone strikes, international human rights group Reprieve has released a report which finds that there is significant evidence the U.S. government is lying about the human toll of the aerial bombing campaign.

President Barack Obama is expected to announce as early as Friday that since 2009, U.S. military and CIA airstrikes have inadvertently killed only about 100 people in nations that are not officially recognized as battlefields, such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The numbers for active war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other hand, will not be included.

But according to Reprieve's report, Opaque Transparency (pdf), every previous statement made by the Obama administration on the civilian casualties from drone strikes has been misleading at best, with some being outright false.

That includes an on-record comment from CIA director John Brennan in June 2011 that "there hasn't been a single collateral death" in Pakistan for nearly a year, and a claim from Obama in May 2013 that strikes are only carried out when there is "near certainty that the target is present" and "near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed."

Killing the Messenger

As Reprieve notes, internal CIA documents leaked in 2013 show that the agency itself recorded a civilian death just two months before Brennan's comments, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other independent investigators found that dozens of local elders were killed in a strike in March 2011. As of this February, only 10 drone victims killed in Pakistan last year had been identified.

The Daily Beast separately noted earlier this month that the White House's expected estimate of 100 collateral deaths is approximately one-tenth of the real number, which most independent advocacy groups put at 1,000.

That could be because, as the Intercept revealed last year, the military posthumously labels its unidentified drone victims as "Enemies Killed in Action" unless they are proven otherwise.

And the president's own claims that strikes are not carried out unless there is "near certainty" that noncombatants will not be killed were similarly contradicted by other internal CIA memos that "show[ed] that drone operators weren't always certain who they were killing despite the administration's guarantees," according to McClatchy.

Indeed, in 2015, a group of drone operators turned whistleblowers accused the administration of allowing the killings of "innocent civilians" while "lying publicly about the effectiveness of such a program."

The figures, which are set to come annually from now on, will not include details such as names and countries of origin. Nor is the administration expected to explain how it defines its targets. That renders Friday's announcement virtually meaningless, Reprieve said.

"[I]t has to be asked what bare numbers will mean if they omit even basic details such as the names of those killed and the areas, even the countries, they live in," the report states. "[T]he numbers without the definitions to back up how the Administration is defining its targets is useless, especially given reports the Obama Administration has shifted the goalposts on what counts as a ‘civilian’ to such an extent that any estimate may be far removed from reality."

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