For first time, U.S. to reveal death toll from drones

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Pakistani protesters burn a representation of the U.S. flag to condemn American drone strikes on militants’ hideouts in Pakistani tribal areas. (Photo: Mansoor Abbas/AP)

President Obama’s top counterterrorism aide announced Monday that the government will soon, for the first time, reveal an official tally of how many civilians have died in U.S. drone strikes outside of major war zones since he took office.

“In keeping with the president’s commitment to transparency, I can announce today that, in the coming weeks, the administration will publicly release an assessment of combatant and noncombatant casualties resulting from strikes taken outside areas of active hostilities since 2009,” Lisa Monaco, the president’s homeland security adviser, said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Monaco did not specify what countries would be covered. But her wording suggested that the report would omit data from war zones like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — America’s longest armed conflict. White House spokesman Josh Earnest likewise declined to say whether operations in Pakistan, where the tactic is especially controversial, would be included.

“We’ll have more information on this soon,” Earnest told reporters. “There will obviously be some limitations about where we can be transparent, given a variety of sensitivities, including diplomatic ones.”

The United States has targeted suspected terrorists outside of traditional battlefields in Yemen, Somalia and Libya as well as in Pakistan. The report is not expected to provide a country-by-country breakdown. Instead it will give an aggregate figure for civilian casualties.

Obama has made drone strikes his signature counterterrorism tool. But critics have long warned that those attacks kill innocent civilians frequently enough that they can be counterproductive, fueling deep hostility against the United States and helping extremist groups recruit new fighters.

“By publishing the numbers and being more transparent, we can make clear that we’re not just paying lip service to the idea that our policy puts in place the highest possible standard for avoiding civilian casualties when carrying out these operations,” Earnest said.

The Pentagon typically provides estimates of civilian deaths in the drone strikes it carries out. And administration officials have repeatedly and forcefully insisted that the greatest possible care is taken to limit noncombatant casualties from unmanned aerial vehicle operations, which are also known to be carried out by the CIA. (The CIA’s targeted killing program remains classified.)

But questions about those standards have repeatedly arisen. Yahoo News reported in late 2014 that Obama had exempted Syria from strict new guidelines meant to limit innocent deaths. And the New York Times reported in 2012 that the administration was counting any military-age male killed in a strike as an extremist.

As recently as last summer, Monaco repeatedly refused to say how many civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes.

“I’m not going to be able to give you a specific number,” she told Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, underlining that Obama would not embrace “transparency for transparency’s sake.”

At the same time, she said that the U.S. government undertakes an after-action assessment of every drone strike thought to have resulted in civilian deaths and takes steps to compensate the relatives of any innocent casualties. She declined to say how many times Washington has made such payments.

Monaco said on Monday that the numbers “will be provided annually” and underlined that “it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies.”

That amounts to an attempt to bind the next president to something the current president has only authorized one-quarter of the way through his eighth and last year in office.

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