President Obama is expected to issue an executive order as early as next week that for the first time would call for the United States to annually disclose how many civilians it believes it has killed in its airstrikes against terrorists around the world, The Daily Beast has learned.
The administration will announce that since Jan. 20, 2009, it believes airstrikes have killed roughly 100 civilians in countries including Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia, according to one defense official. It’s a figure many advocacy groups are likely to see as too low to be credible. Most independent estimates as closer to 1,000.
The order is intended to shed light on the U.S. effort to minimize civilian casualties, amid numerous claims that a 1,000 or more innocents have been killed. But the suggestion that only 100 have died from the thousands of U.S. strikes could reignite debate about whether the U.S. actually knows who it’s killing through its furtive air war.
The Pentagon already keeps tallies of how many civilians it believes have been killed on the ground or through airstrikes in recognized war zones like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This order would cover the shadow wars—the semi-official conflicts in planes like Pakistan, where the United States had launched more than 300 strikes in Pakistan alone during the Obama administration. The order would for call for the release of figures on any airstrike—via drone or fixed wing aircraft—involving U.S. operations in these areas, two U.S. officials explained to The Daily Beast.
The administration has called its drone program a precise, effective form of warfare that targets terrorists and reduces the chances of the United States becoming embroiled in quagmires in the war against extremists. But many opponents said the United States often does not know who it is killing—and even worse that it’s evasive about who it’s targeting. Even some defense officials fear the drone program has led some to join extremist groups.
Terror leaders around the world have cited the drone war as a reason for others to join their ranks. The release of the order and official tally will likely, in the short term, only add to the controversy.
In the West, perhaps the most well-known civilians killed by a drone strike were American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni LePorto, who were being held by al Qaeda in Pakistan, when a January 2015 U.S. strike targeting the deputy al Qaeda leader in the Indian Subcontinent killed the two hostages as well.
But they were not the only innocents taken out. Independent groups put civilian death tolls in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands—and have said the U.S. has not been honest about who has been killed. For example, Reprieve, a human rights group dedicated to studying the drone war, estimates that 4,700 people in all have been killed in the U.S. drone war. And a 2013 McClatchy report found that despite U.S. assertions that drone strikes had killed top level al Qaeda members, classified documents show that the strikes have also killed hundreds of lower level militants.
At the same time, by routinely releasing such figures, it likely will be easier for the U.S. to pay compensation to civilians killed in airstrikes. In places like Yemen, the U.S. has, at times, paid compensation by way of proxy.
According to a source familiar with the discussions, the president may also impose other new rules on drone and other air strikes, including providing more financial reparations to families of civilians killed in drone strikes and requiring other countries with which the U.S. partners to follow the same rules as it does.
The source added that the administration is also expected to release a less redacted copy of the presidential policy guidance that governs drone strikes. That means more details about the policy may come to light than currently available.
U.S. officials have insisted that they don’t conduct strikes unless there “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” as President Obama explained in 2013.
As recently as last Tuesday, the president referred to his war on al Qaeda as a success story.
“If the implication is that those of us up here and the thousands of people around the country and around the world who are working to defeat ISIL aren’t taking the fight seriously, that would come as a surprise to those who have spent these last seven and a half years dismantling al Qaeda,” Obama said after a counter-terror meeting at the Treasury Department, using the government’s prefered acronym for ISIS.
When the U.S. does release figures on civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, they are often at odds with those making assessments on the ground. For example, according to Airwars, which monitors strikes in Iraq and Syria, at least 1,323 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since the war against ISIS began. By comparison, according to U.S. Central Command, which keeps tally of such figures, coalition strikes have killed 21 and injured 17, as of April 2016.
The administration first hinted at the release of the new executive order in March when Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism security adviser, announced the decision at a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations.
“In keeping with the president’s commitment to transparency, I can announce that, in the coming weeks, the administration will publicly release an assessment of combatant and noncombatant casualties resulting from strikes taken outside areas of active hostilities since 2009. Going forward, these figures will be provided annually,” Monaco said during the March speech.
“Because we know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counter terrorism actions and the broad support of our allies.”
Since then, the order has been mired in internal legal debate, delaying the announcement, a U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast.
White House officials declined to discuss the specifics of the order, but said any decision is an attempt at transparency about the U.S. and its efforts to minimize civilian casualties.
“The president has been clear that we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. As the president has noted, ‘when we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government,’” Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman explained to The Daily Beast.