No matter who wins the election next month, one thing’s for sure: the next president will inherit a program of escalated drone strikes that have killed scores of civilians in Yemen and Pakistan. The drone strikes that have terrorized civilian populations while going after jihadist organizations will be the Obama administration’s most enduring legacy.
Pakistanis protest U.S. drone strikes
(Photo: SS Mirza/AFP/Getty Images)
But the American people are totally in the dark on what the U.S. is actually doing with drones, and who the U.S. is actually killing. The Obama administration’s secrecy on this issue, even when it comes to killing 16-year-old American citizens, has been extreme. And while there have been efforts by outside organizations to document casualties from drone strikes, they are not a full or accurate accounting of what’s going down on the ground.
The inaccuracy of these efforts, most prominently the efforts by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, is the subject of a new report on drones from Columbia University. Titled “Counting Drone Strike Deaths,” the report seeks to debunk the “false assurances” from the New America Foundation and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. These “false assurances,” primarily in the form of undercounting civilian deaths, “may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups.”
The Columbia report, authored by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, finds that the drone strike numbers provided by New America Foundation and the Long War Journal “significantly and consistently underestimated the potential number of civilians killed in Pakistan during the year 2011.” The authors of the report undertook their own count of civilians killed in Pakistan by drone strikes, and their numbers were close to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s, a London based organization. The bureau estimates that between 68 and 157 civilians were killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan last year, with the Columbia report estimating between 72 and 155. In contrast, the New America Foundation claimed that just 3 to 9 civilians died. The Long War Journal claimed that 30 civilians died.
For more on the report, I caught up with Naureen Shah, Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic and the Associate Director of the Counterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia. The transcript of our conversation follows.
Alex Kane: What do you think is the most important finding in your report?
Naureen Shah: I think the most important finding of the report is that we are at great risk of mistaking estimates of who is being killed for hard facts about who is being killed. And there is a risk that the estimates that are out there that are really commonly cited–in news reports that are out there on TV, on CNN, The New York Times–those estimates that say there are very few civilians being killed could cause us to believe that drone strikes are a successful strategy and that we should be deploying them to new parts of the world and against new groups, when in fact we don’t really know the true costs of drone strikes. We don’t know how they’re impacting local civilians in the countries where we’re doing drone strikes.
AK: Explain the reasoning behind studying and publishing analysis on how drone strikes are reported in the US. Why is this question of reporting important?
NS: Well, the Obama administration claims that drone strikes are really precise. The analogy that they love to use is of eradicating a cancer without scarring the surrounding tissue. We’re talking about claims of extreme precision and low civilian harm that would really be unprecedented in the history of air warfare. And it’s those claims of precision that are enabling the Obama administration to take a “trust us” approach to warfare. So it’s “trust us” we’re doing these discrete covert actions, we’re not causing anybody harm, we’re just seeking out the bad guys, as opposed to those long, costly, bloody counter-insurgency wars that we were waging in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s really unfair for the Obama administration to claim precision because it’s also claiming secrecy, and it’s saying that everything has to be kept secret because it’s national security. So on the one hand, they’re touting its success, and on the other hand they’re saying we can’t tell you anything beyond the success because it’s a national security secret. Now the drone strike estimates come in where the secrecy leaves space for them.
So the drone strike estimates are from private organizations that are making a good-faith effort to figure out how many civilians are being killed. But the information they’re offering, when it comes to the New America Foundation and Long War Journal, appears to us to severely underestimate how many civilians are actually killed.
AK: And you find that those two organizations have counts that diverge wildly from your own, with your own count matching up largely to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s. What should that finding mean to journalists who rely on this data?
NS: They have to proceed with caution. I think it would be a mistake for journalists to continue to cite only the New America Foundation, or only the Long War Journal, instead of explaining when it comes to that part of the story that we don’t really know who is being killed and how many people are being killed, that there are conflicting estimates out there, and that the New America Foundation is one organization with one estimate, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates far more civilians being killed. It’s not right, it wouldn’t be accurate for news organizations to take the New America Foundation estimate as fact, as proven. One reason is because it diverges so much from our estimate and from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s. Another is that all of these estimates, including our estimate, are just based on news reports, news reports filed in that region where journalists have very limited access to the scene of the crime, if you will.
It’s not like journalists, for the most part, are going to where the drone strike happened and talking to witnesses, doing a bit of, almost a forensic analysis, being able to see what happened with their own eyes. This is a region where few journalists, even Pakistani journalists, can really get there. We’re talking about media reports that are often based on the word of anonymous, Pakistani government officials who have an interest in telling a story of, “drone strikes kill only militants.” We’re not going to see anonymous government officials admitting that many of the people killed are civilians. So it’s a stacked deck.
AK: The questions people have about casualties and drone strikes can be solved easily if the US government accurately reported on them. But that’s not going to happen without sustained pressure from civil society. But I was wondering if you can explain the government’s secrecy around drones and what the implications of that secrecy are?
NS: Well some people call it an “open secret.” I would say that’s a mistake–it’s truly a secret and we should be demanding of the US government an actual accounting for who’s being killed. People call it an “open secret” because the Obama administration talks about drone strikes in pretty vague terms. They admit that we’re conducting drone strikes, they say it’s been in Pakistan and Yemen, and they won’t say who is conducting the drone strikes. They won’t say if it’s the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite, incredibly secretive military organization. They won’t talk about particular strikes.
The general policy of the US Department of Defense would be that after an operation is completed, they would divulge information about that operation–that’s what would happen if we were in any other kind of war. But when it comes to drone strikes, the US government won’t divulge information, even a year or two years after an operation has occurred. So we still don’t know how many strikes have occurred, we don’t know who the targets of the strike are, there’s conflicting information about who is being killed. The US government is openly acknowledging the controversy–sometimes, CIA officials will provide leaks to journalists and they’re anonymous leaks, and often times these leaks simply impugn the credibility of journalists and human rights organizations.
So the answer to whether or not civilians are being killed by the US government is, first, secrecy, second, a leak which says anybody who claims civilians are being killed is merely a pawn of Al Qaeda, is naive. And that’s not a real answer to the question of whether civilians are being killed. That’s not a responsible way to deal with the problem. It doesn’t engage with the specifics, it just attacks the people who are making the claims, which is really not enough considering how much credible reporting is out there on this.
AK: And of course this question becomes even more important because, as the Washington Post reported, the Obama administration is expanding and institutionalizing their “kill lists.” So it becomes all the more important in light of that.
NS: Right. What we’re seeing is a kind of normalization of this kind of warfare. And the major problem with it is that there’s so much secrecy that it’s impossible for the American public to really engage in what it means.
It’s great that there’s a Washington Post story about it, that we at least know something about it. But why are the officials reported in the story all speaking on the condition of anonymity? That’s not the way the United States should be conducting its wars. There should be a lot more openness so we can have a public debate. If you look at the debate on Monday night on foreign policy with President Obama and Governor Romney, there was hardly a mention of drone strikes. And that’s not surprising because President Obama rarely talks about drone strikes, which are the signature of his administration in terms of national security.
AK: Right, and laughably, Bob Schieffer, the moderator, said to Obama, “we know what your position on drone strikes is, so let’s go to Mitt Romney.” Absolutely absurd that Bob Schieffer didn’t question Obama on drones during the debate.
NS: Well he also called him “Obama bin Laden” at one point. So it’s not surprising.
AK: That’s true. A big revelation of The New York Times’ “kill list” story was the Obama administration’s definition of “militant” as “all military-age males in a strike zone.” Your report gets into the militant vs. civilian categorization in the media, and note that it is a biased categorization because it is colored by governments definition of what those terms mean. What impact, if any, do you think the administration’s definition of the term militant has had on US media reporting?
NS: Well, the term “militant” is not a legal term. In fact, it’s just a really convenient term. It means, if you look up the dictionary definition, someone willing to take military action. It’s vague, it could mean anybody. It benefits the US government because the US government no longer has to justify who it’s killing by resort to any kind of legal standard or definition. We don’t actually know what the US government’s legal standards are for who it can kill. But the idea that they can kill anyone who is a military-age male in the proximity of someone who they actually know has planned attacks against the United States is really alarming. It is so far outside any conventional interpretation of international law that it is a wonder that the Obama administration hasn’t come out and clarified or denounced the New York Times story from May 2012 on the military-age male presumption.
One reason why the Obama administration might be saying there’s so few civilians killed, compared to the reports by just about everybody else, including the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, the reason for the discrepancy in those efforts might be because the Obama administration has defined away the problem. So if you define everybody who lives in a certain area, who is a guy, who is a teenager, presumptively a militant, then yeah, there’s not many civilians being killed. But that kind of definition doesn’t track with international law and it’s incredibly unconventional.
AK: And do the Long War Journal and New America classify casualties in this way?
NS: Well, everybody who’s basing their reporting on these news reports is just operating in this echo chamber. So militant is a vague word. It’s really dehumanizing in the sense that we don’t know exactly who these people are linked to, we don’t exactly know what their conduct was. Was it that they were providing medical supplies and meals to a group of individuals who were planning attacks on US forces? Or is it something else, are they just people who happen to be in the same area? The word militant is used in news reports without any kind of definition, and then it gets repeated in these estimates. And that really benefits the Obama administration, who doesn’t feel a lot of heat to explain its definition of militant and civilians, because these estimates of low civilian casualties from the New America Foundation and others seem to be consistent with what the Obama administration is claiming in terms of precision.
AK: Gotcha. I don’t have any more specific questions on the report, but I want to make sure that I’m not missing anything. Is there anything you want to say before we end our interview?
NS: I would just say that beyond the issue of how many civilians are being killed is the issue of what impact the drone strikes would have on a population even if civilians weren’t being killed. We’re talking about planes hovering over head for hours every single day, and really the casualty of that, the human casualty, is peace of mind for the people who live there. We see reports that parents don’t want to send their kids out to school, that people don’t know what’s going to get them killed by a drone strike. Imagine living in that kind of fear, and we’re talking about communities that are already ravaged by war. It’s not that the United States is creating the problem, but it’s exacerbating the problem.
Drone strikes are touted as a clean, antiseptic form of warfare, but they’re still warfare, and I think when we talk about expanding drone strikes in new places around the world, the public should engage in that decision in the same way it would if we were going to send ground troops to a new part of the world. These things have costs. Warfare always harms global communities even if it’s extremely precise. So more consistency and openness by the Obama administration isn’t just a matter of knowing how many people are being killed. It’s a matter of giving the public something to talk about. And I think this administration would agree that it’s important that the public, that people on TV, really seriously debate us going to war in yet another location.