AFTER YEARS OF INTENSE SECRECY, the Obama administration on Monday announced that it will for the first time acknowledge the number of people it has killed in drone strikes outside of conventional war zones, including civilians. The report, administration officials said, will be released “in the coming weeks,” and will continue to be released annually. The news came as the Pentagon confirmed that it had carried out one of the largest airstrikes in the history of the war on terror.
Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, described the plan in comments made during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco said, adding that the operations described in the report would not cover areas of “active hostilities,” such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Human rights groups and legal organizations acknowledged the significance of the move but said more needs to be done. “This is an important step, but it should be part of a broader reconsideration of the secrecy surrounding the drone campaign,” the ACLU’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said in a statement. On Friday, the U.S. government, as part of a long-running legal battle with the ACLU, said it would release a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guidance, the rules and law it relies on for so-called targeted killing. Jaffer argued such documents must be released in order to have a full accounting of the administration’s drone program.
“The administration should also release the legal memos that supply the purported legal basis for drone strikes — particularly those carried out away from recognized battlefields,” Jaffer said. “The authority to use lethal force should be subject to more stringent oversight by the public, by Congress, and, at least in some contexts, by the courts.”
Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah echoed the call for more precise information on the administration’s legal standards. “Today’s announcement is a welcome and crucial step, but the upcoming disclosure must include information on the U.S. government’s definitions and legal standards for these strikes,” Shah said in a statement. “Only then will policymakers, the human rights community, and the general public have the information necessary to assess the administration’s numbers and the drone program’s impact.”
For years, U.S. policymakers and national security officials have alluded to varying numbers of casualties resulting from drone strikes. Dianne Feinstein, a member of Senate Intelligence Committee, and John Brennan, the director of the CIA, have both described civilian casualty totals in the “single digits.” Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham once put the overall death toll at 4,700. Last year, in The Drone Papers, The Intercept published a cache of classified military documents revealing the technological limitations of the Pentagon’s drone program outside of active war zones, its controversial reliance on electronic intelligence to trigger strikes, and, in the case of one campaign in Afghanistan, a tendency to kill large numbers of people in pursuit of a single target.
While the administration’s newly announced drone report would mark a turning point in acknowledging some of its most controversial counterterrorism operations, its full scope was not immediately clear. The Obama administration has overseen targeted killing operations in several countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Both the military and the CIA carry out the strikes. The CIA’s drone strikes, however, are classified as covert, meaning they are not officially acknowledged by the administration.
The Intercept posed several questions to the White House regarding the administration’s upcoming drone strike reports, including whether the data will reflect covert operations and strikes in Pakistan and whether it will incorporate the years of data gathered by NGOs. Those questions were not answered. A senior administration official said in an email, “When deciding whether an operational area is an ‘area of active hostilities’ for purposes of the President’s [counterterrorism] policy guidance, we take into consideration, among other things, the scope and intensity of the fighting.”
“We consider, for example, Iraq and Syria to be ‘areas of active hostilities’ based on what we are seeing on the ground right now,” the official added. “This is not the same as a determination that an armed conflict is taking place in the country at issue. Regardless of that determination, we are committed to being precise and discriminating in our use of lethal force; to complying with all applicable law, including the law of armed conflict; and to taking extreme care to minimize the risk of civilian casualties in all of our actions.”
Last month, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times lavishing praise on drone warfare as “the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict.” Days later, the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, published a report card evaluating the administration’s transparency on drone policy. The administration received a string of failing grades.
As if to underscore how engrained the administration’s approach to warfare has become, while Monaco spoke Monday, reports began to surface of a massive U.S. counterterrorism strike in Somalia. The Pentagon reported that more than 150 suspected members of al Shabaab had been killed roughly 120 miles north of the nation’s capital of Mogadishu, making it one of the largest instances of U.S. airpower in recent memory, with a death toll that exceeded every U.S. counterterrorism mission in Somalia over the past nine years combined.
“We know they were going to be departing the camp and they posed an imminent threat to U.S. and [African Union] forces,” said Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson. “Initial assessments are that more than 150 terrorist fighters were eliminated.” Early reports attributed to the attack to a drone strike. The Pentagon later corrected itself, and the Associated Press reported that the strikes included multiple drones and manned aircraft launching missiles at the camp. The Pentagon spokesperson said he was confident the strikes would “degrade al Shabaab’s ability.”