The Obama Administration Finally Revealed How Many Civilians Have Died in Drone Strikes

Here’s the big surprise.

Dennis J. Henry Jr./Planet Pix/ZUMA Press

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


The Obama administration announced on Friday that the United States has killed a much lower number of civilians in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia than have been previously estimated by outside researchers.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said airstrikes (overwhelmingly by drones) killed between 64 and 116 civilians in those four countries from 2009 to 2015. The numbers excluded “areas of active hostilities” such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

The report is the first time the Obama administration has provided official estimates of the death toll in the secretive drone war. President Barack Obama also issued an executive order on Friday that requires the government to deliver an unclassified report on drone strikes each year that includes the number of combatants and noncombatants killed. The order also instructs the government to ramp up its efforts to avoid civilian casualties and acknowledge them when they do occur. Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, reacted to the order on Twitter by calling it a “positive step but riddled with caveats [and] weak formulations.”

The official numbers are significantly lower than the totals compiled by journalists and researchers. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based investigative news outlet, calculates that the Obama administration has killed at least 325 civilians in drone strikes outside of war zones (and possibly hundreds more). The liberal-leaning New America Foundation counts anywhere from 247 to 294 civilian deaths. In both cases, the minimum numbers are more than double the government’s maximum estimate. Those estimates also exclude strikes in Libya.

The government’s report acknowledged that official numbers would vary from outside estimates. While calling some of the nongovernmental data “credible reporting,” the report argued that the US government is more experienced in assessing strikes, and better informed, thanks to classified information about the strikes that outside sources can’t access. “The U.S. Government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations,” it noted.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate