Journalism in the Public Interest

Dissecting Obama’s Standard on Drone Strike Deaths

What do we know about how the administration counts killings by drones?

A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile sets off from its hangar at Bagram air base in 2009. (Bonny Schoonakker/AFP/Getty Images)

In a lengthy front-page story last week exploring President Obama's use of drone strikes in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, the New York Times reported that the president had "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in."

Citing "several administration officials," the Times reported that this method "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants ... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." The Times reported that this standard allowed counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to claim in June 2011 that for nearly a year "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."

Human rights groups and others have expressed outrage at the reported counting method. And in the last few days alone, 27 "suspected militants" have been killed in three drone strikes in Pakistan, including the reported No. 2 of al Qaeda.

We wanted to lay out exactly what's known (not much) about the apparent policy, what's not (a lot), and what the White House is saying in response to the Times report.

Crucially, the White House has done nothing to knock the story down. I gave the White House a chance to respond, and it declined to comment on the record. But speaking on condition of anonymity, an administration official acknowledged that the administration does not always know the names or identities of everyone in a location marked for a drone strike.

"As a general matter, it [the Times report] is not wrong that if a group of fighting age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed that all of them are in on that effort," the official said. "We're talking about some of the most remote places in the world, and some of the most paranoid organizations on the planet. If you're there with them, they know you, they trust you, there's a reason [you're] there."

When we asked a White House spokesperson about how the U.S. knows even the number of people killed in strikes, they told us to speak the CIA. The CIA did not immediately respond to our request.

Another thing that's unclear is whether the controversial counting method is a new policy. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told Fox News last week that he was not aware of any change in the policy of how corpses are counted, but that if there had been a change, his committee should be briefed.

Several people in the human rights community told ProPublica that the metric for counting civilians described in the Times report represents a new and troubling standard.

"We have never before heard anything quite like the idea that if you have to be in a certain place and you happen to be of a certain age, that in and of itself can make you targetable," said Gabor Rona, international legal director at Human Rights First and former legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It's also not clear whether the policy applies to all covert drone strikes or just ones done by the CIA.

Asked last week about the Times report, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters the president "goes to extraordinary measures" to avoid civilian casualties.

"We have at our disposal tools that make avoidance of civilian casualties much easier, and tools that make precision targeting possible in ways that have never existed in the past," Carney argued.

But analysts point out strikes can go awry even if a missile hits its programmed target.

"Any military official will tell you your precision is only as good as your intelligence sources and your intelligence analysis," said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. "How much do we really know about Somalia and Yemen and Pakistan? We have errors in targeting in Afghanistan and we've been there for a decade."

Shah, who is working on a study on civilian harm from covert drone strikes, said she was not surprised by the Obama administration's reported standard for counting civilians given the extremely low estimates of civilian casualties leaked by administration officials over the years.

The Times story last week, for example, quotes a "senior administration official" claiming that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes under Obama in Pakistan is in the "single digits."

That's in stark contrast to outside estimates. Independent organizations analyzing news reports and other sources have put civilian deaths from drone strikes from the high double digits in Pakistan alone to the high triple digits including countries like Yemen and Somalia.

It’s interesting.  I remember once hearing about an organization that relied on inhuman attackers indiscriminately killing people under the spurious logic that mere association with bad people made them enemies.  I thought the goal was to stop them.

Apparently, though, they’re the heroes of the flick, our boys in the Pentagon.  Either that, or we thought it was such a great idea that we should copy them.

Note that the same government wants to deploy flocks of drones domestically.  Anybody think we’ll get a fairer shake than Arab kids get?  It’d make some cop’s job so much easier if everybody on the street was “probably” threatening his life and the community at large.  It’d soothe the overpopulation and environmental disaster fears of the neo-Malthusians, too.

To me, the use of ordinance delivered by any method other than sniping or assassination is binary:  Choose to do it, you will have non-combatant casualties.  Don’t do it, and you won’t have non-combatant casualties.

We should have been out of Afghanistan a long time ago.  An information issue that would be of interest and is of importance to the American people is the names and positions of the individuals who are responsible for…extending…our stay in Afghanistan.  All of them, from the time Bush abandoned the original Afghanistan mission to date.

And their national and international - and corporate - connections…which is useful data for discerning motive.

marshall sroge

June 5, 2012, 3:58 p.m.

Did Al Queda estimate the number of “non-combatant deaths” in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania? The standards that seem to be imposed upon the United States by such critics as “Human Rights First” & others are impossible to achieve in a conflict involving asymetrical forces. It is easy to criticize while seated in a leather bound chair in a suite of air-conditioned offices.


If this can be done in Afghanistan and with impunity it does seem, we here at “home” must concern ourselves with when these drones will be circling over our communities.  Cringing as I look up, surveillance of law-abiding citizens will surely happen, and who knows, it could be happening as I speak.  I wonder what it does feel like as an innocent Afghan child, mother etc., to walk around the streets and not feel safe from these attacks.

“Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out,” seems to be the Obama policy.  Where have I heard that before?

@Bill Tucker:  A General Atomics commercial?

Roger Edwards

June 5, 2012, 8:50 p.m.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have reproduced virtually every mistake and folly of the Vietnam war, including President Obama’s approach to civilian deaths.  In Vietnam they were called “free-fire zones” and anyone found in them was considered by definition to be Vietcong.

Imagine the screams of outrage coming from the Beltway if the United States were subject to the same drone technology, with some foreign power crowing loudly that they just got the no. 2 guy in the Administration (sorry, Joe Biden, you shouldn’t have come out of your bunker).

@Roger Edwards:  Re:  “<strike>Imagine the screams of outrage coming from the Beltway</strike> if the United States were subject to the same drone technology, <strike>with some foreign power crowing loudly that they just got</strike>...”

That much is a lot easier to imagine…given that the folks inside the Beltway increasingly represent only that minority percentage who see the American people as “labor” and so their natural enemy…

Not surprising that the Obama administration is trying to apply the same accounting tricks they’ve used in past years to make the jobs numbers look better on casualty reports in an attempt to make his foreign policy look better.

Times change quickly, anymore…wasn’t all that long ago that the right wasn’t concerned about casualty counts…they blasted tens of thousands of innocents in Iraq, for example.  And it wasn’t all that long ago that they simultaneously applauded the killing of Taliban and al Qaida operatives and claimed that their people - Bush, Cheney, & PNAC, LLP - deserved all of the credit for any Taliban or al Qaida operatives Obama killled…

Now I read Zachary’s post, and its all “You kill people…bad President!”.

Where’s the outrage-from the left- who were so outraged by the bushies doing the same? Where’s the sharp rhetoric and barbed rejoinder? If Bush hadn’t set such a bad example for Barack, none of this would be happening, right?

@Craig Hof:  Without knowing who has made the arguments for chaining America into perpetual war within Afghanistan to Obama and what those arguments were, I have difficulty getting too worked up about it.

You see, Obama didn’t create the Afghanistan mess - he inherited it from the right.  But mess it is, and America generally tries to clean up the messes she makes without being told.

We’re not Big Oil.

Marshall, so how many random Arab civilians do you think need to die before you think we’ve gotten our revenge?  And how far back does your memory stretch?  Enough to support an invasion of Britain for the people they killed when we declared independence?  Or is it just stuff in your lifetime?

Roger, let’s go a step further.  Imagine the outcry if just one active combat officer was killed in Afghanistan by an Afghan drone.

Craig, a much better question is why everything is right and left, when both sides are doing the same thing.  Why is indiscriminate killing only wrong when it’s not the guy you voted for giving the order?  (Also, why do people keep harping on three thousand dead Americans to justify the killing of tens or hundreds of thousands of random Arabs?  Wasn’t the entire point of “an eye for an eye” to set an upper limit on revenge?)

And let’s all remember that the only reason this isn’t still happening in Iraq is that WikiLeaks (and Bradley Manning, who two years in jail without charges) made it too awkward for the Iraqi provisional government to extend our immunity to prosecution.

While that’s sinking in, let’s also remember that Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan and the World Trade Center terrorists were Saudi Arabian.  Those are notable in that those are countries we claim as allies and thus have not invaded or ousted their ruling party.

marshall sroge

June 6, 2012, 9:56 a.m.

I don’t think that going back eleven years is comparable to going back to the American Revolution. Perhaps if you were directly affected
by the 9/11 attack, a different response may have been forthcoming.
In your final paragraph, you draw a fine distinction between the nationalities of the 9/11 terrorists and the location of Bin Laden…I believe we are addressing the issue of Al Queda, an organization that operates internationally therefore the efforts to deal with it requires a cross-border solution.

Sure, Marshall.  I live a whopping thirty miles away, and lost about a dozen high school classmates, former coworkers, and neighbors.  I have a couple of friend still sick from being on-site or living in the dust plume, and I couldn’t contact anybody because phone and Internet lines all went through those basements.

But go ahead and assume that all people who were affected are in favor of more death, and anybody who isn’t must be alienated.  Couldn’t be that some people just don’t think of revenge as a valid political platform.  Must be that I don’t care about Americans, right?

Meanwhile, what have we become in this country?  We now watch our citizens carefully, fuel our actions with rhetoric of evil enemies, and kill indiscriminately, figuring that mere nationality makes a person evil.  Gosh, that sounds so familiar?  You’ll forgive me if I’d rather the United States not become exactly the kind of hellhole we claim we’re fighting.

My point about nationality was that, if we’re looking for the people out to kill us, we’re doing a comically bad job.  We KNOW those countries are housing terrorists, because we find ACTUAL (rather than statistical) terrorists there.  And yet, we don’t seem to care about those parts of the world.

And I’ll point out that “cross-border solution” is a euphemism for sovereignty violations.  It also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, considering how well we’ve limited our invasions to particular countries.

Note that I’m glad Saddam Hussein is gone from Iraq, though it would’ve been nice if we pushed for a more cooperative government instead of pushing for “elections” (which creates instant angry losers) and killing people.  I’m also glad the Taliban is out of power in Afghanistan, though it would’ve been nice if we continued their policy of wiping out poppy field rather than making it easier to get heroin.  I think the invasions did good.

But they’re clearly not accomplishing their goals, and they’re running on forever with no effect other than radicalizing the survivors, ensuring we have more kids to blow up next year.

John wrote:  “While that’s sinking in, let’s also remember that Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan and the World Trade Center terrorists were Saudi Arabian.  Those are notable in that those are countries we claim as allies and thus have not invaded or ousted their ruling party. “

To which I would add that there is little doubt that 9/11 and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism were and are funded by petrodollars.

So when I want to get right down to cause, I point to the Republicans siding with Big Oil and the Islamic OPEC nations against the American people and the United States of America by blocking all alternative energy, conservation, and mass transportation measures in their successful effort to enforce America’s addiction to oil in the aftermath of the formation of OPEC and the latter’s subsequent oil embargo.

Without that oil money our right/Republicans ensured would flow into the Middle East, the Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia which fund terrorism wouldn’t have that ability…the Middle Eastern nations which did/do threaten Israel would be making those threats from behind spears, bows, and arrows…we wouldn’t have had the first Gulf War…the right wouldn’t have had any incentive to lie us into Iraq…we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan…

But generally everybody wants to pretend that cause is isolated from effect if the right people - the right’s people - are making money.

1984 has come—but has not gone.

What the US is doing to others may well come back to haunt us.
But this is just another face of war—dehumanizing the enemy so that an innocent civilian death counts for nothing.

The few who try to open up this policy are dealt with.  Poor Bradley Manning thought he was doing the right thing by calling his superiors’ attention to the video showing a brutal helicopter attack on civilians by Marines up there laughing about the show on the ground. 

What happens to whistleblowers?  That’s right:  His superiors blew him off; he went public; he was arrested, held incommunicado for a year; tortured by our government; finally moved to more humane conditions when the outcry got too loud; now is being “tried” by a military court.  No doubt as to the outcome…

In reply to the poster who cited “Kill ém all; let God sort ‘‘em out”, this was said by a Christian leader of the Crusades, when his subordinates asked him how to tell which were “pagan”.

The Church ran knee-deep in blood during that slaughter.

So much for the prayer breakfast that is a slap in the face of the Constitution—and to which every President seem to pander, not excepting the present confused occupant of the White House

For Hypatia.  I had no idea that, “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out,” went all the way back to the Crusades.  I remember it from the back panels of silk jackets that GIs came back from Vietnam wearing.

For those who want to really creep out their friends with trivia:

“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” (Kill them all.  The Lord knows His own.)

Arnau Amalric, at least in reports of reports.  Though they probably weren’t significantly exaggerrated except maybe for rhythm.  According to Wikipedia, his letter to the Pope explained:

While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying “to arms, to arms!”, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt…

“Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people.”  I like to think he’d approve of the use of drones, but not in allowing anybody to be classified as civilian.

@John:  “...the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders”

I guarantee you that was “prettied up” for the Pope’s consumption and the historical record.  The promise of “riches” to be obtained by looting “heretical” and “pagan” cities was a major recruiting tool for the Crusades…

In stressing that only “the servants and other persons of low rank” broke the rules of diplomacy, the reputations of those with the preexisting wealth and power required to take and keep the spoils of war were being protected.

You’ll note that tales of “servants and other persons of low rank” who came back as wealthy individuals from the Crusades are historical oddities.

I’m not completely sure, now that you bring it up, but I think you may have slightly misread, Steve.  My reading of “from their leaders” suggests that it was the other side (“them,” the city under siege) whose servants attacked, and that was justification for the Crusaders wiping the town off the map, including the fellow Catholics they went to “protect.”

@John:  Isn’t the key phrase “the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city” of Béziers, which indicates that the attack was directed at the city rather than originating from the city?

That is my understanding, anyway…reinforced by the fact that my understanding of humans suggests that when it comes to the victors recording the cause of an atrocity such as Béziers, a human such as Almaric who was writing from the perspective of those who had committed that atrocity would have been very, very clear about the ignition point if he could in any way absolve the Crusader army of all responsibility.

‘Cuz the adherents of [insert religion here] can do no wrong, donchaknow.

Although the story told in Wikipedia of the actual sack of Béziers adds a slightly different twist (éziers):

Quote:  “On July 22, the crusaders were busy getting settled and still days away from starting the siege proper. A group of soldiers or perhaps just armed civilians from the town made a sortie exiting the gate overlooking the Orb River. As they started to harass routiers and pilgrims of the crusader army, a brawl ensued and soon the attackers from the town found themselves outnumbered and retreated in disarray. The routiers quickly took advantage of the chaos, stormed the walls that were not properly manned, and entered the gate, all without orders. The crusader knights, realizing that the defenses had been broken by the routiers, soon joined the battle overwhelming the garrison, and the city was doomed.”

End quote.  As a veteran, I still adhere to my original opinion as what plainly happened is the commanders of the Crusader army lost control of “the troops”...hence my emphasis on “all without orders”.

Which itself is just a politically-correct way of saying the routiers violated their order to stand down until ordered to attack - and then, upon seeing the success the routiers (a routier is a medieval mercenary) were having, the “knights” then violated their own orders…

An action by the “knights” that I would be reluctant to assume wasn’t driven by “Hey…if we don’t get in there, we won’t get any of the loot!” - particularly in light of the fact that, again, routiers were mercenaries…just in it for the loot.

I see little difference between the USG murder program and how it operated and other kinds of racial profiling done by police in the US. It’s a form of fatal profiling. And it creates a precedent for others to use it against the US once the technology becomes more available. Why not use it against US diplomats as they are involved in arranging aggression against the citizens of other countries? The slipperiest of slopes. Slippery with blood as are most of the USG’s activities.

I think a jury trial with presentation of evidence would be more precise. Actually, precision is not the word would use for firing missiles at remote targets. And attacking someone who is related by marriage to a terrorist is quite tribal and perhaps not fit for a modern state to engage in.

Jury trials with presentation of evidence require the cooperation of the general population.  Here in America, those who would enforce justice can still - for all practical purposes - stroll in and arrest a suspect…that is, if they take any fire, they likely will only take fire from the structure where the suspect is.

If a situation is created wherein the general population is hostile, then those sent to capture a suspect will likely take fire from all surrounding structures and any other position that provides cover…and they may find themselves dealing with mines and IEDs, too.  In that scenario, the question becomes do the ends justify the means…would you rather inflict casualties, or take casualties. 

Assuming, of course, that you’re incapable of or unwilling to extract yourself from the mess somebody else planted you in as is the apparent case with Afghanistan.

Or to rephrase all of that into my perspective:  Bush and the Republicans dug a deep hole in Afghanistan and therein buried the moral and ethical principles America has always prided herself on.  To that add the fact that - in this post-“Citizens United” world - the left and the middle are afraid of the right.

As the power of the right grows like a cancer within her, America of course is being affected - changed - by that cancer, just like a victim of pancreatic cancer changes right before your eyes…in everything that she does…to include these drone strikes. 

America becomes ever less like America because she is becoming ever more like the right.

The problem with accusing the Administration of hyprocrisy or maintaining a double standard is that the policy of drone strikes is just that, foreign policy. It is not intended to be a generalizable principle.

No doubt the Administration would be horrified if drone attacks by foreign nations were made against US targets. No doubt the US government would have been horrified if Japan had dropped an atomic bomb on New York rather that the US dropping a bomb on Hiroshima.

I am not endorsing the Obama drone strike policy, only suggesting that the “how would you like it if…” argument has little force!

DP -  The drone strike policy, you say, is “not intended to be a generalizable principle”.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions—even if your contention is accurate, and I am not sure it is.
Technology has a nasty habit of taking over—whether in the military arena or in home and communications gadgets.  Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it is morally defensible.  Look at the bizarre scenarios being concocted to attenuate the coming catastrophe of global warming (rather than just reduce carbon and methane pollution).  This drone thing is a grotesque exemplar of “boys with their boys”.

And yes, I do predict that it could come back to bite us.  Remember that drones now come in many sizes.  Some are as tiny as birds or insects.  Yet they could be programmed to disrupt our lives on a disastrous scale.

Excuse typo. 

Sentence should read:  “This drone thing is a grotesque example of “boys with their TOYS”.


I completely agree with you. I was not suggesting that the drone strike policy was a “good intention”. My point was more cynical. It was that it was merely a policy of perceived self-intereset and that, as such, basically not based on principle at all.

Critiques such as yours are what have force when arguing against such actions, citing possible unforseen risks and moral consequences and other substantial problems with the policy.

My main peeve was with, as I wrote in my earlier post, the “how would you like it if…” argument against the policy, as if those supporting the drone strikes would find any force in this argument.

Unfortunately, such an argument will only have any persuasive force to those conerned with international law or the risks of setting dangerous precedents.

War and death often instill no fear or even distaste in those who intend to send only others off to war and death.  The mantra “We need to fight them over there instead of here!” was the point when our leaders officially recognized both that their own safety was their foremost priority and that all others are…disposable.

Leaders care about people...but of late, the entire top of the food chain across this nation is nothing but managers, and to a manager people are naught but “human resources.”

That latter phrase’s displacement of “the personnel department” in Corporate America marked the beginning of the end.

lolll…maybe I should have said it is the same old trick?  Dehumanize the individual by placing them into a set with a different label, and then when you dispose of the set you’re not picking on anybody “personally”? 

Thus the dozens of innocents killed in drone strikes are just “collateral damage”...the thousands killed in terrorist atrocities are just “infidels”...the millions the American right wants to discard are just “entitlement spending”...the hundreds of millions who die in war are just “the enemy”...those who would resist such sociopathology are just “liberals” to be vilified now in preparation for their disposal when sufficient power is accumulated…

Reruns are the specialty of humans.  I bet the rest of the galaxy doesn’t watch our channel much; too boring.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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