President Barack Obama deserves a lot of credit for finally admitting the obvious to the American people: the U.S. government has conducted hundreds upon hundreds of airstrikes on terrorist targets from remotely-piloted aircraft, popularly referred to as drones. The drones are deployed in order to disrupt ongoing plots, take out key commanders from the battlefield and accelerate military pressure to keep terrorist organizations more concerned with their physical safety rather than with their plans.
Washington's covert drone operations were not at all covert. News organizations and stringers in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia would often report casualties from these drone strikes as soon as Hellfire missiles made impact on the ground. There have been cases of dozens of terrorists in a remote, northwestern district of Pakistan whose tribal areas being eviscerated, or public reports of a key Al Qaeda commander getting smoked by a mysterious U.S. aircraft hovering over the Yemeni mountains (which were as frequent as news about Kanye West's public outbursts). However, because the drone program was highly classified in government channels, administration, military and intelligence officials in America's national security community were not supposed to talk about any of these operations. The "we neither confirm nor deny" routine became a running joke in Washington. While Al Qaeda was free to talk about the drones buzzing overhead, the CIA director and defense secretary had to stay mum.
The Obama administration's public release of a report detailing the number of covert counterterrorism strikes that have occurred and the ratio of combatant-to-noncombatant deaths is a breath of fresh air and a complete 180-degree turn from the government's previous position. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said shortly before the figures were released, "the fact is, these operations [drone strikes] that will be the substance of an announcement later today are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn't even confirm existed." Indeed, for the very first time since the technology was created and refined for kinetic missions around the world, the American people are now granted the ability to see with their own eyes how many civilians were mistakenly killed in the previous six years of strikes.
Disclosure of the numbers is the positive side of this story. The negative side is what is in the report itself: a three-page document that is mostly filled with explanations from the Office of National Intelligence on why these figures may be too low. And they are low—so low, in fact, that you could be forgiven for assuming that the administration is either vastly underplaying the actual number of civilian casualties or is supremely self-confident that they have discovered a way to kill bad guys without killing the good guys in even small quantities.
The U.S. government's range of 64–116 civilian deaths in 473 counterterrorism airstrikes over a span of six years is exponentially lower than independent organizations that have been tracking the lethal U.S. drone program since its existence. Even taking the government's highest figure as a base value, that number would still be 70 percent less than the lowest number of civilian deaths provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
How the administration decided to list the number of civilian and combatant casualties, however, is the most disappointing feature of the report. We are left guessing how many drone attacks took place in 2009, 2010, 2011, up until last year. We are left guessing where most of these drone attacks happened or which terrorist organizations were targeted under the program. Moreover, the U.S. government doesn't even tell us how they define the term "combatant" or why their information is so much more reliable than the open source reports and investigations that nongovernmental organizations have been using to compile their own casualty lists. All the American people are afforded is an assurance that the government's figures are more accurate than those provided by the Bureau, the New America Foundation or the Long War Journal. Long War Journal points out the flaw in the government’s methodology: “the U.S. government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations.”
President Obama's executive order to address civilian casualties, created alongside the drone report, is the bigger story here. If Obama's order stands, the Director of National Intelligence will be required to disclose the total number of strikes outside areas of active hostilities during the previous year by May 1. It will also be U.S. policy to publicly admit mistakes when a strike veers off course and kills or injuries civilians, and financial compensation may be rewarded to the families of the victims. All of these reforms are absolutely necessary if the United States hopes to alleviate the anger that can result from the inadvertent and violent death of a family member from a flying robot. At the very least, acknowledging mistakes will demonstrate to the world that America is willing to stand up and admit when they have erred in judgment or when high standards have been broken.
While this is a start, executive orders are by their very nature less durable than statutes passed by Congress. So, if the United States is indeed genuine in their goal of promoting a little more transparency in our counterterrorism operations, the next president should work with Congress to codify Obama's executive order into law. And that law should include information that is far more specific than a lump death toll that was given to us last week. The American people cannot begin to evaluate the full extent of the drone program without knowing where drones are launching their missiles and which groups are being targeted for death. If the New York Times can disclose this information in their reports without fear of compromising sources and methods, then the White House should be able to do so as well.
Daniel R. DePetris has written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.
Image: a drone flies over the mountains. Wikimedia Commons.