If the increasingly frequent discussions about America’s drone program have you scratching your head, here’s an explanation: Obama administration officials have given inconsistent and conflicting accounts of the strikes, a new report reveals.
According to a write-up published this week by ProPublica, the White House has given infrequent and almost always inconsistent explanations for air strikes conducted by America’s unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Although officials with the Obama administration rarely offer input on the civilian casualty count carried out by the controversial aircraft, the numbers that have been handed over to journalists— albeit usually on the condition of anonymity — range from zero to hundreds.
In conducting his research, Justin Elliot of ProPublica writes that he relied less on statistics drafted by overseas outlets that are considered more critical of the US drone program, instead favoring figures supplied by officials with direct ties to the Obama White House.
“Last month, a ‘senior administration official’ said the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under President Obama is in the ‘single digits,’” ” writes Elliott. “But last year ‘US officials’ said drones in Pakistan killed about 30 civilians in just a yearlong stretch under Obama.”
“Both claims can't be true,” Elliott acknowledges.
On his own part, US President Barack Obama told an audience during an Internet town hall earlier this year that drones had not caused "a huge number of civilian casualties." Depending on who you ask, however, the actual civilian body count may be as high as 832, as the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports.
Back in America, though, explanations offered to many of the country’s largest media outlets suggest that some people within the Obama administration are either not being truthful with reporters or else White House staffers themselves are largely uninformed.
In April 2010, an “internal CIA accounting” provided to the Washington Post suggested that “just over 20 civilians” had lost their lives to drone strikes in Pakistan since President Obama began his first term in January 2009. As recently as this May, however, the New York Times quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying that the number of civilians killed by drones under the president’s watch is in the “single digits.”
Another report published by McClatchy last year puts the number of civilians killed between August 2009 and August 2010 at “about 30.” To the New York Times, however, a CIA officer suggested that zero civilians had been executed between May 2010 and August 2011.
Taking into account another three separate drone articles that relied on government insiders for information, Elliott writes that, if the claims are true, “it implies that the government believes there were zero or almost zero civilian deaths between the beginning of 2008 and August 2009, and then again zero deaths between August 2010 and July 2011. Those periods comprise a total of 182 strikes.”
Analyzing three other accounts provided to the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN by government officials, Elliott notes, “it suggests that the majority of the 50 total civilian deaths occurred during the Bush administration — when the drone program was still in its infancy.”
Of course, if Obama officials say that the current administration wasn’t behind the bulk of civilian casualties, they have that covered with another explanation as well: earlier this month, the New York Times published an article that answers just how the White House handles drone statistics: all military-age males in and around targeted strike zone are considered combatants, not civilians, because, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."