Does Obama's 'single-digit' civilian death claim stand up to scrutiny?
Most of the evidence suggests the White House's assertion is inaccurate – but hard data on drones is difficult to come by
Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 February 2013 17.38 EST
John Brennan said in 2011 that there had been no known incidents of civilian deaths. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
If the John Brennan's confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee was intended to be a probing investigation of his suitability to lead the CIA, it began on a shaky note. The Democratic chair of the committee, Dianne Feinstein, kicked off proceedings by saying that the number of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes each year has "typically been in the single digits".
The Obama administration has long stuck to the line that the "targeted killing" programme has been responsible for "no" or "single-digit" civilian deaths. Brennan, who has been a key advocate of the use of drones to take out terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, said in 2011 that there had been no known incidents of civilian deaths.
But does that claim stand up to scrutiny? Hard data is scarce in the opaque world of drone strikes – a product of US military and CIA secrecy combined with the unwelcoming terrain of the Waziristan region of northern Pakistan where many of the attacks have been launched.
Most of the available evidence, however, suggests the boast of single digit civilian deaths is inaccurate. A nine-month investigation into US drone strikes conducted jointly by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities called Living Under Drones reached a stark conclusion. It disputed the dominant line coming from the White House that unmanned attacks on terrorist targets was having minimal downsides in terms of impacting wider communities. "This narrative is false," the report stated.
One of the most authoritative tallies is kept by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the BIJ, which has compiled the best information it could gather from newspaper accounts and its own independent researchers in Waziristan to keep a running score of civilian deaths from 2004 to today.
BIJ estimates that over the past nine years, the US has carried out a total of up to 424 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The attacks have caused, the bureau calculates, at least 556 civilian killings and at most 1,128.
The Washington-based New American Foundation also keeps a count of civilian casualties from US drone strikes. But its calculations suggest the number of civilian casualties has been in double digits for every year since 2004 other than 2012.
A third running score kept by the Long War Journal attempts to record the death rate from all US air strikes without separating out drones. It gives the lowest estimated figures of the three, but even so, it finds that since 2006 there have only been two years – 2007 and 2012 – when the civilian toll has been in single digits.
The lion's share of drone strikes and ensuing civilian casualties have taken place in Pakistan, and the practice has grown significantly since Obama took office in 2009 with Brennan as his top counter-terrorism adviser. Of 363 US drone strikes since 2004, 311 have been on Obama and Brennan's watch.
BIJ's database suggests the civilian fallout of "targeted killing" may be receding. Civilian deaths in Pakistan fell from a peak of 119 in 2009 to 68 in 2011 and just seven last year.
The New America Foundation records a similar figure of five civilian deaths in 2012 and notes that by its figures the rate of non-militant casualties has fallen sharply since 2006.
Omar Shakir of Stanford law school, a co-author of Living Under Drones, cautioned that reliable information was so scanty that it was impossible to know whether the strikes were becoming more accurate, as the US government claims, or whether activity had been switched from Pakistan to other regions such as Yemen.
Shakir pointed out that since Brennan made his 2011 statement there had been no known civilian casualties. But it has emerged that the White House was aware of a wayward strike that had led to multiple civilian deaths just three days into the Obama administration in 2009.
"There is reason to believe that we've been misled about the nature of this campaign," he said.
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This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 17.38 EST on Thursday 7 February 2013. It was last modified at 17.38 EST on Thursday 7 February 2013.
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