Last week, The Intercept published a collection of leaked classified documents detailing inner workings of the Obama administration’s drone strike operations in East Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The drone program has become the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy, with the US military and CIA carrying out hundreds of strikes over the last decade to take out supposed terrorists and enemy combatants.
The primary information revealed in the documents is an intergovernmental study on the successes and failures of the drone program.
And the most troubling aspect of the report comes from a quote from the unnamed source.
The source indicated that drone strikes are less precise than the government lets on. This is due to how the government categorizes people killed by drone strikes and, in effect, obscures the collateral damage caused by such strikes.
“If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a military aged male, or was a military aged male but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question. They label them [Enemy Killed In Action],” the source told The Intercept.
After a drone strike is conducted, anyone the military or CIA can’t prove is not an unlawful enemy combatant goes into the statistics as an “enemy.” That designation is only removed if evidence emerges proving the person killed wasn’t an “unlawful enemy combatant” – evidence that is often near impossible to come by.
It’s essentially “guilty until proven innocent.” The effect of this is that we have no idea exactly how many civilians have actually been killed in US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen – and we may never know.
The source called the government’s statements on civilian casualties caused by drone strikes “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”
The New York Times reported a similar finding in 2012, noting that US President Barack Obama’s method for counting civilian casualties “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.”
“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” an administration official told The Times, regarding the policy. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
During a speech in 2013, Obama laid out the administration’s policy guidelines for drone strikes. Among the guidelines established was Obama’s assertion that before any strike, intelligence must indicate that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
While that supposedly “high standard” sounds good on paper, the findings in the leaked documents appear to show drone strikes as imprecise.
Leaked slides pertaining to the military’s operations along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, called Operation Haymaker, showed that “during a five-month stretch of the campaign, nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets.”
By February 2013, the Haymaker airstrikes had killed 35 specifically targeted people, while more than 200 were, by default, declared “enemy killed in action.”
Here are the numbers for another five-month stretch, this one in 2012. Notice the percentage of EKIA (“enemy killed in action”) to JP (“jackpot,” or specifically targeted people) for “kinetic strikes” (terminology for drone strikes).
- Military documents obtained by The Intercept
Numbers gathered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism are even more striking. The wide ranges in the numbers are reflective of the difficulty of accounting for deaths caused by drone strikes:
For example, last January an American drone strike in Pakistan intending to wipe out an al-Qaida compound killed an American aid worker and an Italian man held hostage by the group.
In response, Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, reiterated concerns over collateral damage caused by drones to The Times.
“These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used,” he said.