Peeling back some of the secrecy of America's drone strikes on suspected terrorists, the Obama administration on Friday said it has killed up to 116 civilians in counterterror attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where the U.S. is not engaged in active, on-the-ground warfare.
The first-ever public assessment is a response to mounting pressure for more information about lethal U.S. operations overseas. Human rights and other groups quickly complained that the administration undercounted civilian casualties and called on the White House to release far more information.
The report by National Intelligence Director James Clapper said the U.S. conducted 473 counterterror strikes, including those by unmanned drones, between January 2009 and December 2015. He did not mention where the strikes occurred, but the Defense Department and CIA have pursued targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. The data didn't include strikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which the U.S. considers areas of active hostilities.
The attacks killed an estimated 2,372 to 2,581 combatants in those seven years, the report said. Between 64 and 116 non-combatants were killed.
The administration noted the much higher estimates by non-governmental organizations, which go as high as 900 for the same timeframe. Senior U.S. officials cited several reasons for the discrepancy, including the government's access to sensitive intelligence that helps it more accurately identify the deceased. Groups that have been tracking U.S. drone operations for years weren't convinced.
"The numbers reported by the White House today simply don't add up, and we're disappointed by that," said Federico Borello, executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict in Washington. "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."
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism said the administration's number is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian deaths it has tallied. It records such deaths on the basis local and international journalists' reports, advocacy organizations, leaked government documents, court papers and field investigations. The London-based group credited the administration's release as a welcome step toward greater transparency, but said more information on specific strikes was needed to reconcile different assessments.
Seeking to enhance safeguards for civilian protection for the rest of his presidency and beyond, Obama also signed an executive order Friday that details U.S. policies to limit non-combatant casualties. It makes protecting civilians a central element in U.S. military operations planning.
The order requires the government to publicize the number of strikes each year, and combatants and civilians killed. The 2016 report is due May 1, 2017.
But the directive isn't necessarily binding on the next president, who could change the policy with an executive order of his or her own.
Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, which also tracks drone strikes, said the administration's report will "do little to quell the criticism" of those who want full disclosure of civilian casualties. This would include the names of those killed and dates, locations and other details on the strikes.
Roggio, who has estimated 207 civilian deaths over the same period in Pakistan and Yemen alone, said discrepancies would narrow if the U.S. and observers agreed on the details of several especially lethal strikes.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said Friday's release provided only scant information.
"The government continues to conceal the identities of people it has killed, the specific definitions it uses to decide who can legitimately be targeted and its investigations into credibly alleged wrongful killings," Shamsi said. "The American public can't be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely."
Naureen Shah, Amnesty International's director of national security and human rights, said it was impossible to assess the accuracy of the data without more details. Her group's investigations, she said, "tell a different story."
Nevertheless, said hailed the precedent of announcing civilian deaths as a game-changer and said it would be hard for future administrations to step away from the commitment.
Jennifer Gibson, an attorney for Reprieve, a New York-based human rights organization, said it was time for an independent investigation of whom U.S. drones have killed and the legal framework for the program.
Gibson spoke of 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi, who she said was severely injured in Obama's first drone strike, and nine-year old Nabila Rehman, who traveled to the U.S. in 2013 to seek answers about an attack in Pakistan that killed her grandmother.
"The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed," Gibson said.