Cover-Up of Civilian Drone Deaths Revealed by New Evidence
By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on Truthout.
Detailed information from the families of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and from local sources on strikes that have targeted mourners and rescue workers provides credible new evidence that the majority of the deaths in the drone war in Pakistan have been civilian noncombatants – not “militants,” as the Obama administration has claimed.
The new evidence also shows that the statistical tally of casualties from drone attacks in Pakistan published on the web site of the New America Foundation (NAF) has been systematically understating the deaths of large numbers of civilians by using a methodology that methodically counts them as “militants.”
The sharply revised picture of drone casualties conveyed by the two new primary sources is further bolstered by the recent revelation that the Obama administration adopted a new practice in 2009 of automatically considering any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a “militant” unless intelligence proves otherwise.
The detailed data from the two unrelated sources covering a total 24 drone strikes from 2008 through 2011 show that civilian casualties accounted for 74 percent of the death toll, whereas the NAF tally for the same 24 strikes showed civilian casualties accounted for only 30 percent of the total.
The data on 11 drone strikes from 2008 through 2011 were collected in 2010 and 2011 from families of victims of the strikes by Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar. Those 11 cases represent only a fraction of the total number on which Akbar has obtained data from victim’s relatives.
Although relatives of drone strike victims could have a personal interest in declaring the innocence of their relatives, the details provided by relatives in legal affidavits, such as the age, employment and other characteristics of the victims, appear in almost every case to support their claims that those killed were not actively involved with al-Qaeda or other military organizations.
The data on 13 drone strikes targeting rescuers and mourners from 2009 through 2011 were gathered by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) in a three-month investigation in late 2010 and early 2011 involving interviews with eyewitnesses and others with direct knowledge of the strikes.
The NAF Database: Origins of the Discrepancies
The NAF “Year of the Drone” project, headed by terrorism expert Peter Bergen, has been tracking casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan and estimating casualties from the strikes since 2009 based on news media reports.
But Bergen’s estimates are not focused on estimating civilian casualties. Instead, they track the deaths of an undefined category of victims called “militants” by individual drone strike and by year. Those totals are shown in graphs with the residual category of “other” reflecting the overall total minus the total of “militant” deaths.
A major problem with the NAF statistics on drone victims is the extraordinarily wide spread between the low and high estimates for total number of deaths from drone strikes, as well for as the total number of “militants” killed. The range in the total number killed in strikes is estimated in the NAF database at a low of 1,879 and a high of 2,887. The NAF estimates the “militant” deaths from a low of 1,586 to a high of 2,416.
Bergen deals with high-end estimates that are 54 and 52 percent above the low end estimate by averaging them out. But the real issue is whether a very large proportion of the dead referred to by those anonymous sources giving the totals to reporters in Pakistan as “militants” were, in fact, noncombatant civilians.
The data compiled by Akbar and the BIJ strongly suggest that conclusion.
The NAF tally on the 11 strikes on which Akbar collected data from the victims’ families shows a total of 66 to 78 “militants” killed along with 39 to 47 “others” – the term NAF uses in place of “civilians.” But the information from the victims’ families indicates that the number of “militants” killed was actually 27 to 34, while the number of civilians killed was 86 (See addendum below).
Instead of representing only 30 percent of the total casualties in those 11 strikes, as portrayed in the NAF accounting, civilian casualties actually accounted for nearly three-quarters of the total, according to the relatives’ testimony.
The data on 13 drone strikes targeting funerals and rescue efforts reported by the BIJ in February similarly contradict the NAF tally of deaths. The NAF recorded a total of 90 to 176 dead in 12 strikes which the BIJ was able to confirm as targeting rescuers or mourners; 77 to 153 of the dead were listed as “militants,” whereas only 13 to 24 were listed as “civilians.” But eyewitnesses and other sources considered reliable in the localities reported that between 80 and 107 civilians had been killed in these attacks on rescuers or mourners. That suggests that the higher estimates for “militants” usually included the civilians killed in those strikes.
So, when adjusted for the new data, the estimate of “militants” killed would be 77 to 112, and the figure for civilians would be 80 to 107. The revised total of civilian deaths in those strikes is essentially equal to the revised total for “militants.”
Combining the data on the two sets of drone strikes, the original estimate for “militant” deaths in the NAF accounting was a range of 143 to 231, but the figure based on actual local testimony is 104 to 146 – a 60 percent decrease. The figures for civilian deaths, on the other hand, increases by 66 percent, from the range of 52 to 71, based on the NAF tally, to an adjusted range of 164 to 193.
Thus civilian casualties, which were less than a third of the “militant” casualties in the NAF accounting for the 24 drone strikes in question, are revealed to be 70 percent of the total.
The data from relatives of drone strike victims is not limited to the 11 cases cited in this article. Details on casualties may become available in the future on 39 more drone strikes.
When Akbar made the data on the first 11 cases available to Truthout in August of 2011, he offered to make the data on 15 more cases available when the process was complete. Akbar said that 25 relatives of victims had already been interviewed and signed affidavits, and that another 25 interviews were already in process. He said he believed an even larger set of interviews with victims’ families would eventually be possible.
Akbar decided later to turn over all the data he had collected from victims’ families to two academic institutions – New York University’s Global Justice Clinic and Stanford University’s Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. Neither of those institutions was willing to share the data they have obtained from Akbar with Truthout prior to publishing their own analyses of drone-strike casualties.
The Obama administration has sought to discredit Akbar, a UK-trained lawyer who has been practicing before the bar in Pakistan since 2003, ever since a Pakistani whose uncle and son had been killed in a drone strike publicly named the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Jonathan Banks, at a press conference with Akbar in December 2010. Banks was forced to quickly leave the country. Akbar and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which he runs in Islamabad, initiated a lawsuit seeking $500 million in damages from Banks, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on behalf the families of victims of drone strikes.
In August 2011, administration officials attacked Akbar in interviews with Scott Shane of The New York Times as seeking to discredit the drone campaign on behalf of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI. Shane wrote, however, that colleagues of Akbar in Pakistan “strongly deny” the accusation, quoting one lawyer who had worked with Akbar as saying the charge was “not credible at all.”
Bergen’s Flawed Methodology
The systematic underestimate of civilian casualties by the NAF statistical summaries is in part a result of Bergen’s methodology for estimating the number of “militant” deaths and “other” deaths – a methodology which assumes that news media reports can always be relied on to estimate the number of “militants” killed in each strike, and which also reflects an underlying political bias in favor of the drone-strike program. The consequence is the distortion of the real toll of drone strikes on civilians in the first four years of the program from 2004 through 2007.
During that period, the CIA carried out only 12 strikes, but one of them targeted a madrassa on October 30, 2006, killing as many 83. One of the press articles to which the NAF database links on that strike is a BBC story quoting the Pakistani Army spokesman as saying that the madrassa was destroyed by Pakistani air strike because of “confirmed intelligence reports” that militants were hiding in the school and that it was being used as a “terrorist training facility.”
But the same article quoted an eyewitness as saying that the dead were local students, not terrorists. Subsequently, a Pakistani newspaper, The News, published a complete list of the names and ages of the students showing that 26 of the 83 were children under the age of 15, but the NAF database account of the strike does not link to the story, even though it links to an earlier story by the same newspaper reporting the official line that “militants” were killed in the strike.
Despite the clear evidence that the victims were students, the NAF continues to list those 83 victims as “militants killed” in its statistical summary of the incident, while also estimating “others killed” as 12 to 83. Those figures were both illogical – since uncertainty would have demanded that both categories be scored 0-83, and failed to reflect the Musharraf administration’s admission to The Sunday Times a month later that the Pakistani military had lied about the strike at the time to cover for the CIA, thinking it would be “less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US” and that the “collateral damage” was such that they had requested that the Americans “not do it again.”
Six years later, the NAF “Year of the Drone” web page is still telling readers that 92 “militants” were killed during the first four years of the drone war and that the number of “others” – meaning civilians – killed was just nine. Bergen’s accounting thus ignores the highly credible evidence of a mass slaughter of innocents and gives the CIA high marks for its discrimination.
In response to the data in this story, Bergen declined to comment on the discrepancy between the NAF figures on casualties in the 24 drone strikes and the data obtained from primary sources in Pakistan. Bergen wrote in an email: “The notion that we have some ‘political’ bias to either underplay or overplay the civilian causality rate of drones [sic] strikes is plain wrong. We simply track reliable press accounts of the strikes and publish all of our data in a transparent way precisely so that anyone, including yourself, can critique our findings and where we make errors we update our site accordingly.”
He did not acknowledge, however, that egregious errors had been committed in regard to the worst single drone strike on record and in the accounting for casualties over the entire 2004-2007 period.
Bergen asserted last month that civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan had been reduced for the first time to “at or close to zero” – a claim made more famously by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan in August 2011, who told The New York Times that, for more than a year, the United States “has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq.”
Making Civilian Casualties Vanish
The history of the CIA’s drone-strike program also undermines the credibility of the Obama administration’s claims, as well as Bergen’s methodology. It suggests that the CIA and White House have been forced to resort to a blatant deception in order to continue to claim that civilian casualties are few and far between.
From 2004 through 2007, tight restrictions had been placed on the CIA drone war in Pakistan, according to the account in David Sanger’s book, The Inheritance. The CIA was required to target al-Qaeda figures only on the basis of specific intelligence about their role and their whereabouts, and to give assurances that there would be no civilian casualties in the strike. But those restrictions were clearly violated repeatedly by the CIA during those years, as the drone campaign continued to kill mostly civilians. Figures from press accounts of the first 12 strikes over the 2004-2007 period indicate that drone strikes killed a total of 143-151 civilians, including the 83 young students killed in the single strike on the madrassa, and about 40 “militants” at most.
The only way the CIA could escape from this embarrassing situation was to get President George Bush to rescind the restrictions that the agency had systematically violated. In 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden received permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of behavior that matched a “pattern of life” associated with al-Qaeda or other groups, according to Sanger’s account. The strictures on civilian casualties were also removed.
Even the figures from the NAF web site show that the estimated 134 to 165 “militants” killed in drone strikes in 2008 represented less than half the estimated total of 274 to 314 deaths it counts for that year. Those statistics indicate that the majority of the victims were noncombatant civilians.
After the first strike during the Obama administration on January 23, 2009 (See Addendum below), Obama quickly learned from the CIA that, contrary to press reports, the strike had killed a number of innocent civilians, as The New York Times reported last May. As a result, the administration adopted the rule that Obama was to be informed if the agency did not have “near certainty” that a proposed strike would not cause any civilian deaths. Obama wanted to decide personally on any strike in which civilian casualties were a possibility, according to the Times.
But instead of curbing the number of strikes sharply as might have been expected, that decision resulted in the adoption by the White House of a policy of counting any military-age male killed in the strike as a combatant or “militant,” in the absence of “posthumous” intelligence proving their innocence, as several administration officials told the Times.
That policy, apparently adopted after a lengthy debate within the administration, explains why the NAF tally of drone strike deaths in 2009 shows that “militants” represented an estimated 70 percent of the dead. In 2010, the NAF estimate of the percentage of “militants” or “suspected militants” in the total killed in drone strikes in the NAF tally jumped dramatically to 96 percent, evidently reflecting the application of the new definition of “militant” for an entire year for the first time.
The NAF figures for 2011 were almost identical, with 93-96 percent of the casualties recorded as “militants.” The new policy enabled Brennan to claim in June 2011 that there had not been a “single collateral death” from drone strikes in Pakistan for more than a year, although he said two months later the government had not “found credible evidence of collateral deaths.”
The data from victims’ families and from local sources on attacks on rescuers and mourners show, however, that a large proportion of those “militants” were actually civilian noncombatants.
The Data: Victims’ Families vs. New America Foundation on 11 Drone Strikes
October 9, 2008: The strike on a compound is recorded by NAF as having killed six “militants” and three civilians. Press reports had said three of the dead were “Arabs” and identified the owner of the house as “Faisal Mohammed Sultan,” who was said to have been a “tribesman sympathetic to the militants’ cause.” But the sole survivor of the attack told the lawyer Akbar that the actual owner of the house was a different person altogether, who also had a “Sultan” in his name, and that the four people killed were all from the same family that had resided in that house.
January 23, 2009: The very first drone strike carried out by the CIA in the Obama administration was reported by news media to have killed seven “militants,” but NAF correctly shows the attack as having killed eight to ten “other” people, but no “militants.” The 13-year-old boy who was the only survivor of the attack told Akbar that seven people had been killed, three of whom were his uncles, one his cousin and three neighbors.
February 14, 2009: NAF records 25 “militants” killed and no civilians in the strike on that date. But the father of one of the victims told the interviewer for the lawyer that his eight-year-old son had been one of the dead, without challenging the claims of other deaths in an adjoining house.
September 7, 2009: NAF records three to five “militants” killed in the strike and five to seven civilians, but the survivor of the blast, a 15-year-old boy who lost both legs, reported that the only three people killed were two cousins and an uncle who had been in a wheelchair for ten years.
November 20, 2009: NAF records only eight “militants” killed, but the families of three victims said only three people were killed: a tenth-grade student who was the nephew of the homeowner and two of his friends.
December 31, 2009: NAF records two to five “militants” killed. But according to the owner of the house, the only three people killed were the owner’s brother, a secondary school teacher at a local public school; the owner’s son, who was working at the local public school for girls, and a mason who was working on construction of the village mosque, and was staying with his family.
January 8, 2010: NAF records three to five “militants” killed in the strike, but the family of one of those killed, a government schoolteacher, said that he was killed along with three others standing next to a shop near a car that was the target of the attack.
June 10, 2010: NAF shows two to three “militants” killed in the strike, but the family of the owner of the house who was killed in the attack said the other three people killed were his neighbors.
November 26, 2010: NAF says three to four “militants” were killed in the strike, but the families of the victims say the three young men killed by the strike were Sanaulaah Jan, a 17-year-old pre-engineering student at the government Degree College and two of his friends from the same college.
March 17, 2011: NAF records 11-12 “militants” killed in the strike, which was initially reported by Pakistani and foreign news media to have been an attack on a big gathering of the Haqqani network, along with 13-24 civilians. But interviews with 20 separate families of the victims of that strike revealed that the 50 people killed, included 20 accredited tribal leaders from different sub-tribes in the province and another 30 tribal elders, that it was guarded by local government militiamen, and that the subject of the meeting was ownership of chromite mines in the province. The relatives confirmed earlier reports that the subject of the meeting was ownership of chromite mines in the province.
June 15, 2011: NAF records three to eight “militants” killed in a strike on a car, but relatives informed Akbar that the four victims of the blast were an employee of the Water Resources Power Authority, a local pharmacist and one of his employees, and a student at Miranshah College.
Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian covering US foreign and military policy has been awarded the Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 by the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Trust.