There have been nine drone strikes reported in Yemen in the past two weeks – an uptick apparently connected to the Al Qaeda threat that shut down U.S. embassies across the Middle East and Africa. As many as six civilian deaths have also been reported.
President Obama has promised increased transparency around drones, but when asked about the strikes on Friday, Obama wouldn’t even confirm U.S. involvement.
“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.
The military is also following that line, refusing to release details about what happens when civilians are harmed in these strikes, including if and how families of innocent victims are compensated.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, U.S. Central Command told ProPublica it has 33 pages somehow related to condolence payments in Yemen – but it won’t release any of them, or detail what they are.
The military’s letter rejecting our FOIA cites a series of reasons, including classified national security information. (Here’s the letter.)
There’s no way to know what the military is withholding. A Pentagon spokesman told us they haven’t actually made condolence payments in Yemen. But CIA director John Brennan said during his confirmation process in February that the U.S. does offer condolence payments to the families of civilians killed in U.S. strikes. (Both the military and CIA fly drones over Yemen.)
In May, the White House released new guidelines for targeted killing, saying that there must be a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” But the administration has said little about how civilian deaths are assessed or handled when they do occur. It has refused to address the U.S. role in almost any particular death – including that of a 10-year-old boy, killed a few weeks after Obama’s promise of increased transparency.
Outside reporting on drone strike deaths is spotty and often conflicted. On Sunday, a Yemeni activist and journalist named three civilians who had been injured, “just hanging arnd n thir neighborhood.” Another recent strike killed up to five “militants,” according to Reuters and other news agencies. But Yemenis reported on Twitter that a child was also killed. (The White House declined to comment to ProPublica on the recent strikes or on condolence payments.)
In Afghanistan, the U.S. has long given out condolence payments, which military leaders have come to see as a key part of the battle for hearts and minds. What might seem like a callous exercise – assigning a dollar amount to a human life – is also embraced by many humanitarian groups. The Center for Civilians in Conflict, for example, sees it as a way to help families financially and as “a gesture of respect.” In fiscal year 2012, condolence payments in Afghanistan totaled nearly a million dollars.
It’s likely harder to do that in the drone war. Military and intelligence leaders have expressed concern about “blowback” from local populations resentful of the strikes. But the U.S. has no visible troops on the ground in countries like Yemen or Pakistan, and almost never acknowledges specific strikes.
Despite the recent surge, overall there have been far fewer drone strikes and civilian deaths alleged in 2013 than in previous years.
For more on the U.S.’ shadowy drone war, read ProPublic'as latest story, “Who are we at war with? That’s Classified,” our coverage of the controversial practice of “signature strikes”, and our chat with national security reporters on the challenges of covering a remote and secret war.