White House to Reveal Drone Strike Death Toll, But Secrecy Still Reigns
"It’s not enough to tally up the drones' body count—we need a thorough reassessment of the program itself."
The Pentagon on Monday announced it would reveal, for the first time, the number of deaths caused by U.S. military drone and other air strikes overseas since 2009, including civilians, in regions that have not been declared war zones.
The disclosure, which is set to come annually from now on, will cover Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and other nontraditional battlegrounds—while omitting active war zones like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, according to President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco.
The international human rights group Reprieve said it was "a step in the right direction, but doesn't go nearly far enough."
"The Administration plans not to say how many innocents it thinks it killed in any strike—it will only offer a bland 'aggregate assessment' of innocent dead," said Cori Crider, Reprieve attorney for drone strike victims. "Contrast this to last April, when the President named—and apologized—for the deaths of two innocent Westerners, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. To Yemenis and Pakistanis who live under US drones every day, the contrast could not be clearer."
Monaco's announcement comes just as news outlets started reporting that U.S. strikes killed at least 150 people in Somalia on Saturday.
"This matters," Crider said. "In every region where we have pursued an aggressive, secret drone policy, militancy has gotten stronger. It’s not enough to tally up the drones' body count—we need a thorough reassessment of the program itself."
ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer made similar comments, stating, "This is an important step, but it should be part of a broader reconsideration of the secrecy surrounding the drone campaign."
"The administration should also release the legal memos that supply the purported legal basis for drone strikes—particularly those carried out away from recognized battlefields," Jaffer said. "It should acknowledge individual strikes, and it should investigate and explain strikes that kill innocent bystanders. The authority to use lethal force should be subject to more stringent oversight by the public, by Congress, and, at least in some contexts, by the courts."
Jaffer noted that the government also planned to release a redacted version of its Presidential Policy Guidance, a so-called "playbook" of rules the government must follow when carrying out targeted killings.
In late February, the peace-focused think tank Stimson Center released a report which found that the Obama administration has largely failed on its transparency regarding drone policies, and called on officials to release basic information and legal frameworks on the program.
"We should demand more from our leaders in the conduct of war," report author Rachel Stohl told Common Dreams at the time. If someone has to be killed in battle, "we should understand who they were, why they were targeted, what means were taken to address the situation."