After promising its own assessment of civilian casualties due to military drone strikes, the Obama administration announced its findings at a press conference on Friday. The program, which Last Week Tonight host John Oliver described as horrifying since “children from other countries are telling us that we’ve made them fear the sky,” is one of the sitting president’s more thorny institutions. Yet if Obama’s numbers (and implied argument) are any indication, its successes far outweigh its failures.
Or at least that’s what the report suggests when it claims that, from 2009 to 2015, between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in drone strikes outside of Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, somewhere between 2,372 and 2,581 militants were taken out during the same time period. The apparent gulf between the two sets of numbers is thought to bolster a program whose news presence more often than not includes stories like that of a Yemeni wedding hit by a drone’s payload in 2013, killing 14 people.
Yet these numbers don’t include Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. military’s presence has been ever-present for almost 15 years. Along with no details about possible civilian casualties due to strikes in Syria, the Guardian suggests the new report is therefore “incomplete.” Hence why the paper requested a Freedom of Information Act request for Iraq and Syria’s numbers as soon as the White House went public.
Other news and nonprofit organizations, like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have sounded off on the report’s low numbers. According to their own account, American drones have killed over 1,000 people in nearby countries like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. The human rights organization Reprieve indicates the actual number of dead civilians might be even higher — somewhere around 4,000.
Much of the criticism against the Obama administration’s numbers isn’t new. Neither are the repeated calls for more transparency, which White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized in his Friday address:
“The president believes that our counter-terrorism strategy is more effective and has more credibility when we’re as transparent as possible,” Earnest said. “There are obviously limitations for transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this. But the fact is, these operations that will be the substance of an announcement today are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn’t even confirm existed.”
Then again, as Reprieve said in a statement issued before Friday’s revelations, “what little the Obama administration has previously said on the record about the drone program has been shown by the facts on the ground, and even the U.S. government’s own internal documents, to be false.”
Investigating and confirming the results of drone strike operations is less difficult than it used to be. However, considering the continued debate between White House officials, journalists and activists, their use and misuse won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Especially since the NSA’s own drones are already using a real world version of the SKYNET program from the Terminator movies.