The White House Doesn’t Know How Many People It Has Killed in Targeted Strikes
Officials can only give a range of dead terrorists and civilians
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Humanitarian groups and other critics of the policy have repeatedly demanded Washington explain how it chooses those targets and disclose how many innocent civilians died in the attacks.
On July 1, 2016 — a Friday before a holiday weekend — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence finally released the first official figures. In addition, from now on, the nation’s top spy will provide updated numbers every May.
The new report states the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies killed fewer than 120 civilians — far fewer than any independent monitoring group has estimated in the past. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone War project claims the attacks may have accidentally killed more than 960 innocent bystanders in Pakistan alone.
All of these deaths occurred “outside areas of active hostilities” between Jan. 20, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2015. No specific countries are identified. “‘Areas of active hostilities’ currently include Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” the review noted.
However, between Oct. 7, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2014, the Pentagon said that American casualties in the War on Terror — officially called Operation Enduring Freedom — included any troops killed or wounded in Guantanamo Bay, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
As of July 1, for similar accounting purposes, Washington said the new campaign against the Islamic State included troops killed or injured in Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and “the Mediterranean Sea east of 25 degrees Longitude.”
The report does not say who was in charge of these strikes. Independent groups and journalists widely believe the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command are responsible for planning, directing and executing various parts of these missions.
But far more worrisome is that the figures show Washington simply does not have a firm idea of how many civilians or terrorists it has killed in more than 470 attacks.
Piloted and unpiloted American aircraft killed between 2,373 and 2,581 “combatants” — a stunningly granular total for a margin of error of more than 200 people. The strikes killed anywhere from 64 to 116 non-combatants.
“The assessed range of non-combatant deaths provided to the DNI reflects consideration of credible reports of non-combatant deaths drawn from all-source information, including reports from the media and non-governmental organizations,” the report explained.
“The assessed range of non-combatant deaths includes deaths for which there is an insufficient basis for assessing that the deceased is a combatant.”
In short, agencies supplied data that didn’t necessarily agree with other available sources and was potentially incomplete.
“The U.S. government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations,” the review stated. “Thus, the U.S. government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by non-governmental organizations.”
But there is significant reason to be skeptical of these claims. In August 2015, War Is Boring obtained a previously classified official list of allegations of civilians casualties in Iraq and Syria through the Freedom of Information Act.
In 40 of the 45 alleged incidents, the Pentagon found no evidence that American or allied troops had killed civilians — often within 48 hours or less of investigating the reports. In eight cases, the top American headquarters for the Middle East said it had reached these conclusions because there simply wasn’t enough information to prove otherwise.
In November 2015, Washington did admit that two A-10 Warthog ground attack planes accidentally killed several innocent bystanders near Hatra, Iraq. During the attack, intelligence analysts scrutinized a live video feed and decided an SUV and its occupants were Islamic State terrorists.
The Pentagon only reviewed the incident after getting an email from the owner of the vehicle asking for reimbursement. Otherwise, those individuals would have likely stayed in the “combatant” column for missions over Iraq and Syria.
In many cases, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies often appear to strike with no one on the ground to verify the targets. Otherwise, Washington has to pore over grainy video footage or rely on other reporting.
“U.S. government post-strike reviews involve the collection and analysis of multiple sources of intelligence before, during, and after a strike, including video observations, human sources and assets, signals intelligence, geospatial intelligence, accounts from local officials on the ground and open source reporting,” according Director of National Intelligence’s review.
This list lacks any direct mention of interviews with surviving civilian victims of alleged attacks, their families or other witnesses.
Of course, it is important to note that whatever the true figures are, Washington is not engaged in a campaign to actively murder innocent civilians — unlike the Islamic State or the Syrian government. “Western air forces present far fewer risks to civilian casualties,” Chris Woods of the independent monitoring group Airwars told War Is Boring.
Unfortunately, these official numbers do not help reinforce Washington’s repeated statements that it’s being as transparent and accountable as possible. It may undermine those claims.