WASHINGTON — President Obama has signed an executive order intended to better prevent non-combatants from being killed in drone strikes after releasing new figures showing that more than 64 civilians have been killed in 473 strikes he authorized since 2009.
The long-awaited report on U.S. airstrikes provides the most detailed official accounting to date on the number of civilian casualties caused by the controversial use of unmanned drones to target terrorists. But the numbers are still fuzzy — reported in a range of 64 to 116 — and don't include deaths in areas with active combat operations.
And the estimates are hundreds lower than estimates from independent groups, which generally range from 200 to 1,000.
“The numbers reported by the White House today simply don’t add up, and we’re disappointed by that,” said Federico Borello of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. He said civilian casualties will only increase as the technology develops.
“We’re concerned that as more countries gain access to armed drone technology, it’s more likely that drones will be used as a first response in conflicts and more likely civilians will pay the price,” Borello said.
That report was promised in March by President Obama's top homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco. She said increased transparency was "the right thing to do" and "the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counter-terrorism actions and the broad support of our allies."
Monaco promised the report would be released within weeks, and the White House conceded that the effort has taken longer than expected. Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, the White House released the report on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, when it would likely get less coverage,
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday the report still reflects an unprecedented level of transparency.
“The president believes that our counter-terrorism strategy is more effective and has more credibility when we're as transparent as possible. There are obviously limitations for transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this,” he said.
The operations behind the report “are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn't even confirm existed,” Earnest said.
In April, USA TODAY reported that the Pentagon had changed the rules of engagement to allow field commanders more leeway to order attacks — even where there's a risk of civilian casualties.
New rules allow more civilian casualties in air war against ISIL
Obama has struggled with the proper use of drones since the beginning of his presidency, when he said he inherited a tremendous capacity to unleash the highly accurate weapons but not the legal or command structures to decide when they should be used. "Because the drone program was born in the intelligence community and not the military, Obama said, "it wasn’t subject to the same amount of democratic debate."
"And that's done a disservice not only to the public being able to examine where we made mistakes and create corrective action, it’s actually also done a disservice to the incredibly dedicated men and women in intelligence and in operations who perform these operations who are subject to accusations that somehow they're irresponsible and bloodless and going around blowing up children, which is not the case," he he said at the University of Chicago Law School in April.
"And our popular media I think has been able to just project a whole bunch of scenarios that are generally not accurate," he said.
The report released by the Director of National Intelligence Friday is unlikely to dispel those perceptions.
It provides a less-than-complete picture of how the U.S. military uses drones. It includes only strikes "taken outside areas of active hostilities," meaning it doesn't include data from active war zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it provides no detail on when or where those strikes happened.
The strikes were conducted mostly by drones but also manned warplanes. The Pentagon earlier this year acknowledged killing al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Somalia, for example, with piloted aircraft.
The figures do not include commando raids with troops on the ground, such as the 2011 mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The report fails to account for the number and amount of condolence payments the U.S. government has issued to families of civilians accidentally killed in the air strikes.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee and a California Democrat, called the release of data "an important step forward," but called for greater detail in subsequent reports. Obama's executive order directs future administrations to release annual numbers by May 1 of the next year.