The Obama administration has in turn been secretive about its use of targeted drone strikes, boasted about the program's success, and fended off critics who say the strikes are killing and injuring too many civilians. A New York Times story published Tuesday has the administration's human rights critics buzzing again. A key revelation comes near the end of the article, written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, under the heading, "'They Must All Be Militants.'"
Obama, Becker and Shane write, was angry when informed that the first drone strike after he took office had killed innocent Pakistanis. But one of the measures the administration embraced to prevent future innocent casualties was to embrace a method of counting combatants that would rope in more innocents.
"It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent," the Times reports. "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."
Earlier Tuesday, Jake Tapper of ABC News pressed White House spokesman Jay Carney on the reported policy, which one former CIA official called "guilt by association." But Carney didn't directly answer the question, instead ticking off other policies he says the administration has implemented to avoid killing innocents. "[O]ur military and our broader national security team is able to pursue al-Qaida in a way that significantly reduces the potential for and the fact of civilian casualties," Carney said.
Tapper pressed again. "[T]his is the question -- with the assumption that if you are with a terrorist when a terrorist gets killed, the presumption is that you are a terrorist as well and -- even if we don’t even know who you are, right? Isn’t that part of the reason you’re able to make these assertions?"
And Carney again ducked the question: "I am not going to get into the specifics of the process by which, you know, these decisions are made."
The administration has long discounted estimates of civilian drone strike casualties from the Pakistani media and human rights groups. In December, for example, the CIA claimed to have executed a perfect strike that killed nine militants near Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But British and Pakistani journalists on the ground reported that the strikes killed at least 18, including six innocent civilians.
The CIA in fact said that drone strikes didn't kill a single civilian in 2011, a claim almost no one believes. In January 2011, an anonymous administration official told Bloomberg News, "The CIA since mid-2008 has executed about 200 strikes, killing roughly 1,300 militants and 30 non-combatants." According to today's Times report, another administration official put the number of civilian deaths since Obama took office "in the single digits."
Most non-government estimates put the civilian count much higher, but ascertaining even an approximate number of civilian casualties has been difficult. Pakistan forbids journalists and human rights workers from traveling to the sites of attacks, and the U.S. government, again, wavers between refusing to acknowledge the drone program exists and crowing about its successes. So estimates among journalism outlets vary, as do estimates among human rights organizations. Even estimates within a single organization often include wide ranges. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates 2,464-3,145 drone killings in Pakistan alone since 2004, with 484-828 of the deaths civilian. The New American Foundation's estimates are 1,807 to 2,795 deaths, with approximately 300-500 of them civilian. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution puts the civilian count much higher, estimating 10 civilian deaths for every militant killed by U.S. drones.
The new revelations about the administration's method of classifying militants isn't likely to make efforts to estimate actual civilian casualties any easier.