Despite months of repeated promises, the White House has yet to release its estimate of civilian casualties from the administration’s drone program – a delayed disclosure the New York Times Editorial Board described as “too little, too late.”
In March, Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama chief counterterrorism adviser, announced that the White House would “in the coming weeks” release an “assessment of combatant and non-combatant casualties” from U.S. drone strikes since 2009. Monaco doubled down on the commitment in a second speech a few weeks later.
The figures are likely to show aggregate numbers of people killed by country in nations not recognized as battlefields – like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya – according to the Washington Post. Death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be included.
The President is also expected to sign an executive order requiring the release of annual casualty figures going forward.
Documents released by The Intercept last year provide one possible explanation for the discrepancy. The military posthumously labels its unknown drone victims as “Enemies Killed In Action,” unless there is evidence that proves the victim was not a “combatant.”
A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council told The Intercept he had “no update on timing to offer.”
In the past year, the Obama administration has also started to publicly acknowledge strikes from its covert program. In March, the U.S. military was quick to take credit for killing 150 people in an airstrike in Somalia – claiming that they were all fighters with the Somali insurgent group, Al Shabaab. U.S. Central Command has also started issuing press releases about its strikes in Yemen, often months after they take place.
These disclosures come after a decade of silence on the U.S. drone program overseas in countries where the United States is not officially fighting. Since the first strike in Yemen in 2002, through the dramatic escalation of the drone program under President Obama, the White House has refused to acknowledge its hundreds of strikes away from recognized battlefields.
After it was reported that the White House put U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki on its kill list, the ACLU sued the Obama administration, challenging the administration’s right to kill Awlaki without due process. The Department of Justice responded by invoking the state secrets privilege, and the lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.
Even after Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged in 2013 that the U.S. had “specifically targeted and killed” Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, and had killed three other American citizens – including Awlaki’s 16 year old son – the CIA still refused to “confirm or deny” that it had basic information about the program.
In 2013, in order to “facilitate transparency and debate on this issue,” President Obama released new guidelines for the use of lethal force outside the of recognized zones of armed conflict. The guidelines require “near certainty that the terrorist target is present,” and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” But a 2015 report from the Open Society Foundation documents numerous civilian deaths in Yemen after the guidelines were issued, raising questions about the implementation of the guidelines, which remain secret.
In February, as part of a year-and-a-half long ACLU lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the government to release redacted versions of six documents that outline the legal basis for the drone program. Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director for the ACLU, in a blog post Monday, speculated that White House might be waiting to release the casualty statistics alongside those documents.
Jaffer also pointed out that the next President could rescind Obama’s new commitments to transparency at little political cost. “The next president will be able to manage the political fallout,” Jaffer wrote, “by noting that President Obama issued the executive order in his last months in office after having defended near-categorical secrecy for seven years.”