Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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)

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

Nadia Prupis

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."

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."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Trump-Appointed Judge Permanently Blocks Biden's Oil and Gas Leasing Moratorium

Fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and waters has accounted for an estimated 25% of all U.S. carbon emissions since 2005.

Jake Johnson ·


In Landslide 1,108-to-387 Vote, Maine Nurses Reject Effort to Decertify Their Union

"They thought because we were a new union, they could manipulate Maine Med nurses and overturn our 2021 election," said one nurse. "But we just showed them the door."

Jake Johnson ·


Dems Threaten to Subpoena FTI Consulting Over 'Blanket Refusal' to Provide Info on Fossil Fuel Work

"FTI's refusal to cooperate with this congressional inquiry shows that they have something to hide, which will reveal the dangerous ways agencies like theirs have promoted fossil fuel greenwash and misinformation," said the Clean Creatives campaign's leader.

Jessica Corbett ·


Bad Day for DeSantis as 'Stop WOKE Act' Hit With Injunction, Lawsuit

"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," a federal judge wrote in blocking part of the controversial law. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."

Brett Wilkins ·


US Judge Says Mar-a-Lago Affidavit 'Can Be Unsealed' With Redactions

"This is going to be a considered, careful process, where everybody's rights, the government's and the media's, will be protected," declared U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart.

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo