On Thursday, the human rights group Reprieve released a new report alleging that President Obama’s drone program is far deadlier than we are often told, and that the administration has repeatedly misled the public, overestimating how accurate drone strikes are and underestimating the number of innocent civilians killed.
As the group’s press release notes, this latest report comes soon before the Obama administration is expected to release civilian casualty figures in an act of transparency that has long been called for by human rights organizations. President Obama has come under intense scrutiny throughout his presidency, largely due to his reluctance to discuss in any detail the drone program and its effectiveness or lack thereof.
Reprieve’s report is intended to warn the public of misleading figures likely to be presented by the administration and to provide details that the president and his staff always omit.
“From CIA Director John Brennan’s June 2011 assertion that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” to President Obama’s claim that strikes only take place when there is “near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed, the Administration’s statements, both on record and off, have been undermined by Government leaks and independent assessments.”
The report is scathing in its criticism of President Obama, noting that despite the president’s frequent promises of transparency, his administration has come nowhere close to living up to these promises.
“From the claim of ‘zero civilian casualties’ to an unfulfilled promise that the American people would hear the truth,” the authors of the report note, “those statements paint a picture of an Administration that has re-defined the definition of the enemy to pretend that everyone killed was an extremist — and that (at best) has no idea who has been killed.”
The authors point to the example of CIA director John Brennan to highlight the extent to which the Obama administration is devoted to misleading the public on this issue.
Brennan has, over the past several years, repeatedly downplayed the number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. In one instance, Brennan claimed that between 2010 and 2011, there had not been a “single collateral death” caused by drones in Pakistan.
“Within weeks of Brennan’s claims, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a detailed investigation of the 116 CIA ‘secret’ drone strikes that occurred in Pakistan during the same period,” the report notes. “Analyzing just ten strikes, TBIJ identified at least 45 civilian casualties.”
Reprieve observes that the lowest estimate of civilian casualties “reported by an independent body” is 263. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, by contrast, has put the number at 1,138.
Much of the recent discussion of America’s drone program has come as a result of a whistleblower who leaked troves of documents to The Intercept.
Among other details, the documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the government categorizes nearly every victim of a drone strike as an “enemy killed in action” until there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the victim was not, in fact, an enemy combatant.
This is one of many tactics used by the Obama administration to conceal the horrific details of a program that has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long — and this secrecy comes at an unthinkable cost for families who have been victimized by American drones.
Such a consequential program should not be permitted to exist in its current state, particularly when it is subjected to such little oversight and when the president essentially has control over who lives and who dies, who is deemed an enemy combatant and who is deemed innocent.
In its conclusion, Reprieve calls on the Obama administration to “immediately constitute an independent commission to examine all of the evidence — not just the numbers, but the definitions of who counts as a civilian, the rules of engagement for taking such strikes, and the procedures for investigating mistakes afterwards.”
But if the recent past is any guide, transparency is unlikely to be forthcoming, showing once more that lofty promises are likely to be tossed aside at any moment when they become even slightly inconvenient.
“Much like President George W. Bush’s resort to torture, President Obama first denied this programme existed and now insists that his assassination programme works,” the report concludes. “But, like his predecessor, he has not been willing to back up that claim with information and evidence — perhaps because the facts will reveal that the programme betrays the very values of which America is most proud.”
[Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]