Based off of numbers released by the Obama administration between the years 2009 and 2016, it is estimated that anywhere from 64 to 116 civilians have died as a result of either collateral damage or incorrect intelligence information from drone strikes. On the other hand, the Obama administration claims that between 2,372 and 2,581 insurgent have been killed due to the drone program.
Due to the heavy skepticism and secrecy surrounding the drone program, the Obama administration has decided that they would release these numbers to bring about transparency and accountability to the public.
This information, however, did not satisfy human rights groups that have often delivered heavy-handed criticism to the drone program for nature surrounding the method of killing. They claim that the numbers divulged by the government are inaccurate and far lower than what independent organizations are estimating.
Though the administration has not included the countries in which drone strike deaths have occurred, it is presumed that countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and places in Africa were incorporated into the report. Despite releasing ‘official’ numbers, it is no wonder that the shroud of secrecy placed over the drone program persists given that no countries were listed in the report nor were the times or locations of the strikes listed either.
On Friday President Barack Obama signed an executive order that was intended to hold future presidential administrations accountable for the deaths involved in these drone strikes. This piece of legislation is yet another attempt for the Obama administration to ensure that the program retains any semblance of legitimacy within the public. By disclosing civilian deaths each year in a structured report – available to anyone not just in the United States but around the world as well – this executive order seeks to end the long-held skepticism that has trailed this program since its inception indefinitely.
The executive order mentions that government agencies, most notably the CIA which operates their own covert drone program, “shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians.”
Despite these attempts by the government to bring clarity to the program, human rights groups such as the ACLU have vilified the report as being grossly incorrect on all levels. One reason, as mentioned by the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, is that “the government continues to conceal the identities of people it has killed, the specific definitions it uses to decide who can legitimately be targeted, and its investigations into credibly alleged wrongful killings.”
These concerns are well warranted given the fact that hardly any information is available to corroborate with the government’s claims. However, given the fact that it is impossible to confirm these killings and locations, it is no wonder why such information is not available.
The Obama administration has even admitted that there is a clear discrepancy between its numbers and the numbers reported from other groups like the Long War Journal or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Their reasoning for the discrepancy and variability in numbers is due to the fact that other organizations numbers are flawed due to “the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organization, in local media reports on which some non-governmental estimates rely.”
Either way, it appears that the status quo will largely remain due to the fact that the disclosure of civilian deaths, as reported by the government, has not satiated the many NGOs and organizations that denounce the program entirely. While it is important to understand how the drone program operates, if the government were to release even more detailed information about the program itself, the government could be risking its methodology and strategy in targeting militants in war zones. There does not appear to be a clear solution to solving this issue in regards to the usage of drones, but like with all government programs, it is unlikely that there will be substantial changes to the way in which the information is transmitted to the public.
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