Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

The White House has released data on the number of civilians killed in drone attacks.

The United States has inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 non-combatant civilians in drone and other lethal attacks against terrorism suspects in places not considered active war zones, the Obama administration said Friday.

The unintentional deaths came in a total of 473 CIA and military counterterrorism strikes up to the end of 2015 that the administration said have taken between 2372 and 2581 militants permanently off the battlefield in countries where the United States is not at war, which would include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

Here is the controversy you’ll be hearing about that number:

Independent research groups that track drone strikes have produced significantly higher estimates of non-combatant deaths. The New America Foundation and the Long War Journal each put the number of civilians killed at about 250. A third group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, believes the number is far higher, estimating that as many as 358 civilians have died in U.S. counterterrorism operations since Obama took office.

I have been following this issue closely for years now and have tended to use the numbers from that third group – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). I don’t have any reason to believe that they are more accurate. But they tend to provide the worst-case scenario of what might be happening. So it’s interesting how they have tracked the totals over time. Here is their summary from Pakistan.

In case that is difficult to read, the red bar represents civilian deaths. Notice that they spiked (at 100) in 2009 and have gone down ever since then – with none reported in 2013 or 2014. Remember…that is the worst case scenario.

In Yemen, BIJ reports somewhere between 17 and 37 civilian deaths in 2013 and 4 to 9 in 2014. For Somalia, the total is 3-10 from 2001 to 2016. BIJ doesn’t track drone strikes in Libya.

The spike in Yemen in 2013 is directly related to this:

The United States intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of Al Qaeda, in which the terrorists discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, American officials said Friday.

The intercepts and a subsequent analysis of them by American intelligence agencies prompted the United States to issue an unusual global travel alert to American citizens on Friday, warning of the potential for terrorist attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and their associates beginning Sunday through the end of August. Intelligence officials said the threat focused on the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has been tied to plots to blow up American-bound cargo and commercial flights.

What we’ve seen over the years is not just a dramatic reduction in drone strikes, but an equally dramatic reduction in the number of civilian deaths that are the result of strikes. In 2013, a lot of that was the result of two events. First of all was the appointment of John Brennan to head the CIA. Up until then, there were actually two drone programs: one operated by the Pentagon and one by the CIA. While most liberals objected to Brennan’s nomination (and it actually prompted a filibuster from Sen. Rand Paul), he came in to complete a task that would seem foreign to other leaders of the CIA.

Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency.

It is still unclear how successful Brennan has been in doing that. But as Karen DeYoung and Glenn Miller report, President Obama recently re-stated the goal.

Obama reemphasized that point in a speech in Chicago in April, saying “I don’t want our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization. That’s not their function. As much as possible this should be done through our Defense Department so that we can report, ‘Here’s what we did, here’s why we did it, here’s our assessment of what happened.’”

The other event in 2013 was that President Obama gave a speech in May of that year on the topic of counterterrorism. At the time, I thought it was one of the most important of his presidency because it addressed the issue of actually ending the war on terrorism.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.

Soon the emergence of ISIS overshadowed all of that and we’ve found ourselves once again emerged in a battle with terrorists. But in the speech, President Obama addressed new guidelines he was putting in place for the use of drones.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.

America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.

None of this puts to rest all of the concerns many liberals have about President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, which includes the use of drones. But it is important to recognize the way this administration has improved on the use of these tactics over the last few years. To those who continue to have concerns, it is also important to consider the alternatives. Are there other methods of protecting citizens from terrorist attacks that would line up better with our values and still accomplish the goal? President Obama is fond of using a formulation that is most often credited to Reinhold Niebuhr in saying that we have to deal with the world as it is – not as we want it to be. The world we live in includes people who use terror tactics to frighten and intimidate us. We have to deal with that threat. It’s not likely that our options to do so will meet a test of purity.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.