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For the first time, the US has said how many civilians died in airstrikes outside war zones

The long-awaited report from the Obama administration provides an estimate of civilian deaths that is much lower than previous independent estimates.

by Greg Walters and Ky Henderson
Jul 1 2016, 6:25pm

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The White House on Friday said that US airstrikes strikes have accidentally killed between 64 and 116 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia since 2009. It marked the first officially released tally of civilian deaths resulting from the Obama administration's use of drones — a small number of the strikes involved cruise missiles and manned aircraft — to track and hunt suspected militants.

The White House's estimate of civilian deaths is far below independent estimates.

The report also said that about 2,500 militants were killed in the 473 strikes "outside areas of active hostilities." Strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where drones have been heavily deployed, were not included in the report.

The White House has long maintained that the drone program is both legal and rigorously supervised. Independent observers like Amnesty International, however, have said the strikes may constitute a policy of extrajudicial executions in violation of international law.

'The US Government acknowledges that there are differences between our assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations.'

"The entire world is not a battlefield," Amnesty International policy and activism coordinator Elizabeth Beavers said in a statement shortly before the report was released. "The laws of war are intended for specific places at specific times and under specific circumstances, and are not intended to stretch across the globe in a permanent, endless, secretive 'forever war' paradigm."

President Barack Obama also issued an executive order making the protection of civilians a more integral part of US military planning. In addition to calling for US acknowledgment of civilian deaths, including subsequent payments to victims and families, Obama called for the Director of National Intelligence to issue a public report by May 1 of every year detailing the number of airstrikes and resultant deaths the previous year that occur outside areas of active hostilities.

Related: Life on a CIA Kill List in Pakistan

"Civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state's inherent right of self-defense," Obama said. "The US Government shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians."

The UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that between 500 and 1,100 civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002. Some independent estimates of civilian deaths outside war zones during Obama's time in office are as much as 10 times higher than today's government estimate. (The White House refrained from estimating civilian casualties under former President George W. Bush.)

The administration's figures are "lower than our data suggests," said David Sterman, senior program associate at the Washington, DC-based think tank New America.

Using a methodology that relies on media reports, Sterman's team estimates that between 175 and 213 civilians were killed, mostly in Pakistan, since 2009.

The administration tacitly acknowledged the controversial nature of the disclosure by releasing the numbers on the Friday afternoon before the July 4 holiday weekend — a time when many people aren't paying a great deal of attention to the news. And it explicitly acknowledged the disparity in the numbers of casualties in the report itself.

"In releasing these figures, the US Government acknowledges that there are differences between US Government assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations," the report said. "There are a number of possible reasons that these non-governmental organizations' reports of the number of noncombatants killed may differ from the US Government assessments."

Those reasons included the fact that the government has intelligence at its disposal that is generally not available to outside organizations, and that "some actors, including terrorist organizations" may disseminate false information in the wake of airstrikes.

"Despite our best efforts to ensure to a near-certainty that no non-combatants will be killed or injured, sometimes strikes do result in harm to the innocent," said Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "It is important that we continue to acknowledge those incidents, learn from them, hold ourselves accountable and be as transparent as possible. I also believe that the release of this data will help to undercut inflated estimates of civilian casualties."

The full size and scope of Obama's drone campaign has long been cloaked in secrecy, though officials have sought to reassure the public that serious efforts have been made to avoid civilian casualties. In the summer of 2011, John Brennan, now director of the CIA and at the time Deputy National Security Adviser for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, claimed that "for the past year, there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop."

During his State of the Union address in 2013, Obama referred to a "range of capabilities," including "direct action," that the US continued to take against "terrorists who pose the gravest threat to americans."

Related: Islamic State Said to Execute Dozens in Witch Hunt for Drone Strike Spies

He also vowed to bring more transparency to the program, saying, "I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we're doing things the right way." His administration, he said, would work to ensure "that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."

Asked on Thursday why the disclosure was taking so long, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, "What the national security team and the intelligence community is attempting to do is to break some old habits, and bringing transparency to this element of our national security strategy and our counterterrorism strategy is difficult."

Follow Ky Henderson on Twitter: @kyhenderson