Journalism in the Public Interest

Does the U.S. Pay Families When Drones Kill Innocent Yemenis?

We requested information on how the U.S. handles condolence payments for civilian drone strike deaths in Yemen. But the military won’t reveal a thing.


A U.S. Marine Corps RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle. The military wouldn't reveal any information in response to our request for how the U.S. handles condolence payments for civilian drone strike deaths in Yemen. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released).

There have been nine drone strikes reported in Yemen in the past two weeks – an uptick apparently connected to the Al Qaeda threat that shut down U.S. embassies across the Middle East and Africa. As many as six civilian deaths have also been reported.

President Obama has promised increased transparency around drones, but when asked about the strikes on Friday, Obama wouldn’t even confirm U.S. involvement.

“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.

The military is also following that line, refusing to release details about what happens when civilians are harmed in these strikes, including if and how families of innocent victims are compensated.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, U.S. Central Command told ProPublica it has 33 pages somehow related to condolence payments in Yemen – but it won’t release any of them, or detail what they are.

The military’s letter rejecting our FOIA cites a series of reasons, including classified national security information. (Here’s the letter.)

There’s no way to know what the military is withholding. A Pentagon spokesman told us they haven’t actually made condolence payments in Yemen. But CIA director John Brennan said during his confirmation process in February that the U.S. does offer condolence payments to the families of civilians killed in U.S. strikes. (Both the military and CIA fly drones over Yemen.)    

In May, the White House released new guidelines for targeted killing, saying that there must be a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” But the administration has said little about how civilian deaths are assessed or handled when they do occur. It has refused to address the U.S. role in almost any particular death – including that of a 10-year-old boy, killed a few weeks after Obama’s promise of increased transparency.

Outside reporting on drone strike deaths is spotty and often conflicted. On Sunday, a Yemeni activist and journalist named three civilians who had been injured, “just hanging arnd n thir neighborhood.” Another recent strike killed up to five “militants,” according to Reuters and other news agencies. But Yemenis reported on Twitter that a child was also killed. (The White House declined to comment to ProPublica on the recent strikes or on condolence payments.)

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has long given out condolence payments, which military leaders have come to see as a key part of the battle for hearts and minds. What might seem like a callous exercise – assigning a dollar amount to a human life – is also embraced by many humanitarian groups. The Center for Civilians in Conflict, for example, sees it as a way to help families financially and as “a gesture of respect.” In fiscal year 2012, condolence payments in Afghanistan totaled nearly a million dollars.

It’s likely harder to do that in the drone war. Military and intelligence leaders have expressed concern about “blowback” from local populations resentful of the strikes. But the U.S. has no visible troops on the ground in countries like Yemen or Pakistan, and almost never acknowledges specific strikes.

Despite the recent surge, overall there have been far fewer drone strikes and civilian deaths alleged in 2013 than in previous years.


For more on the U.S.’ shadowy drone war, read our latest story, “Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified,” our coverage of the controversial practice of “signature strikes”, and our chat with national security reporters on the challenges of covering a remote and secret war.

Under the name of classified information, dictatorial governments have perverted the legality and promoted impunity of those behind the “this law” promote political persecution and favoritism “illicit”.
Classified information and acting outside the law and rule of law were the basis of SS nazipolice!
As we think had already overcome this dark moment of contemporary civilization!?!?

Victor L. Edwards

Aug. 12, 2013, 5:46 p.m.

Guys, please! The US has for some years now conducted war against the most pernicious enemy, terrorism, that the world has seen. Yet you want to complain about 6 civilian deaths! Have you ever heard of Dresden? Have you ever heard of Pol Pot? Of the killing of 6 million Jews and 20 million East Europeans? How about 911? It would seem to me that if we can conduct successful war against one of the most elusive enemies in human history with only 6 civilian deaths, surely even God would approve.

Victor, here is the problem…. there has been a LOT more than just 6 deaths. Killing innocent civilians just empowers the enemy. Not to mention that it is immoral.

Oh yes. Rather than hold those responsible for the deaths accountable, let’s make the taxpayers pay for it. That’ll be great.

Civilian deaths:

Vietnam….5 million
Iraq….......100,000 to 1 milllion (depending on source)

Is “terrorism” (a doctrine) the most pernicious evil in history.

In the past 15 yrs, US has had 3100 terrorist deaths,while it has had nearly 150,000 gun homicides of Americans killing Americans.  Tobacco has killed millions. 

A war on a tactic or doctrine can only fail; the more civilians killed (and males are assumed to be terrorists), the more people take up arms against the US.  An unwinnable war can go on forever, which supplies the Military/Industrial industries with perpetual profits from war.

The US A bombing of Hiroshima and Nakasaki was not only unnecessary, according to Eisenhower and other generals, but it was state terrorism, since most killed were civilians, women, children, the elderly, the wounded. 

State terrorism is the most pernicious evil in history, as demonstrated by Nazi Germany, the US, etc.

It is amazing how some people try and justify these killings. It’s like padding your expense account and then arguing that everybody does it. Dale Ruff (above) has the right idea. Start adding up the deaths perpetrated by our killing machine in Washington and it comes to a lot more than just 6 deaths.

Yes, terrorists are running amuck, but repaying evil with evil is hardly the appropriate response.

Another fact I find amazing is that my evangelical friends, who are pro life to the core, are the biggest protagonists of these wars and drone attacks, urged on by their pastors of all people. (Blessed are the peacemakers… hah!) They just can’t get enough of it. Another war in Iran was the rallying cry of their favorite Presidential candidates in the 2008 and 2012 primaries. It was disgusting.

Victor, have you considered that maybe those were bad things, as well?  The fact that murders happen all the time doesn’t make it OK if I punch you.  If your God approves, if he’s a moral relativist of that extreme, then I’d go shopping for another one, myself.  It’s only a matter of time before He starts telling you to blow up buildings to force the infidels out of your country.

Dale, in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when you start really digging into World War II, probably the most striking thing about it is that every military action is an atrocity.  The entire war was about “shock and awe” against civilian populations, including time-delayed bombs to kill responders and the intense study of firestorms.

I won’t defend the action, but we were firebombing half the countryside (the excuse being that Japan decentralized its industry to insulate it from big attacks) and slaughtering civilians daily.  So, while I won’t defend dropping the bombs, I will suggest that it wasn’t substantially worse than what we were doing to them just a couple of days prior.

Just as a reference, and a possible reason why the government might not wish to discuss this, the Fourth Geneva Convention Protocol (which the United States has an obligation to follow and enforce as a participant) explicitly prohibits among non-combatants, “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” (Article 3, emphasis mine)

By non-combatant, they mean “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms…”

These are War Crimes, in other words, with no wiggle room.  Even the well-publicized redefinition of “combatant” is irrelevant, because unarmed soldiers are covered by this as well as children.

Victor Edwards

Aug. 13, 2013, 12:01 p.m.

Killing killers is not nor has ever been “immoral,” as one person suggests. That same person would almost certainly support homosexuality, a thing that has a confirmed history of immorality for the duration of human history! This is a sign of the hyper-uber liberal mindset, not knowledge.

The whole point of my argument is that if war is necessary in human history - and it is, despite the ridiculous notion of the “peace-niks,” - I would think that the liberal mind would love drone warfare, with its accuracy and entirely minimal collateral civilian damage. For the first time in human history, drone warfare has the potential for rendering old-fashioned war moot. For me that is a good thing.

Yes John, I fully agree. in fact, there must be equality in power between “enemies” as if one side goes beyond the sensible, is not actually fighting, it is about revenge or atrocity. As I told, it was done by nazipolice against the Jewish people.

I cannot think of a more offensive crime that state sanctioned murder without due process. Shame on Obama. Not only is he aliar, but he’s a war criminal, just like Bush, who recently had to cancel a trip to Switzerland because his lawyers told him arrest warrants were being prepared there and he would most likely be arrested as the mass-murdering (9-11 and anthrax lying) degenerate that he is.

John writes: “Dale, in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when you start really digging into World War II, probably the most striking thing about it is that every military action is an atrocity.  The entire war was about “shock and awe” against civilian populations,”

I agree but Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 1) worse and 2) happened after the Japanese were defeated and thru the USSR suing for peace.  Their terms were denied, tho after the bombing, they were granted (Emperor remains as symbolic deity).

The generals, the Japanese, the Soviets, the Brits all knew that Japan was finished, that they wanted a peace treaty, but Truman disregarded all of them. 

War is indeed terrorism, but when a party is suing for peace, it is beyond evil to bomb hundreds of thousands of women and children.

I used the A bomb terror attacks as the most flagrant example of state terrorism, not as the only example.  Shock and Awe in Iraq was very close to being called Terror.  I think “shock and awe” is a good definition of terror.

Like the A bombings, the attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were totally unncessary; none threatened the US, none was in a position to threaten us.  The Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden.  Libya was the most advanced of all African nations. Iraq was just a war crime with no excuse at all.  All are examples of state terrorism, the most pernicious evil in the world.

Would it make it better if Al Qaeda halfheartedly compensated families of 911 victims?

You have to ask that question if “compensation” makes you feel better about your own society’s terrorism.

If I shoot you in the knees, will you then think of me as a great person if I grudgingly, after years, pay for a fraction of your hospital bill?

In fact, the US doesn’t give a shit about its victims.  Instead of giving the countries it massacres money for reconstruction, the US enriches its own clean up companies like Halliburton.  This is called manufacturing crisis.  Hire yourself to create a bloody mess, then hire yourself to clean it up.

Vietnam is still reeling from US chemical warfare, and doesn’t even expect help from the US.  The US admitted what agent orange did to US soldiers, but won’t even admit it did the same thing to Vietnamese people.  Read more here: at “US Goes Around World Mutating People”.

Victor, to my knowledge, “thou shalt not insert protruding ‘nads in colons or mouths” was part of the Ten Commandments, whereas “thou shalt not kill” is a widely accepted component.  Call me crazy or a heathen or whatnot, but not being religious, myself, I always assumed that the actual law literally sent down from on high takes priority over some semi-metaphorical story where a gay guy gets stoned to death or a gay city gets nuked.

Not that “thou shalt not kill” has no “unless you have a really good reason” clause.  I understand that it was an easier stand to make (if more painful when the Romans tortured you to death) when the religion was rebellious than when generals need to claim to be Christian while plotting the slaughter of thousands, but anybody who doesn’t consider the latter a perversion of the faith might want to reexamine how closely they follow Jesus when exclusion is more important than brotherhood.

Let me be blunt:  Every death is important.  Every premeditated death is a crime.  The premeditated death of a civilian or unarmed soldier by a military is a war crime, by treaties our country put forth.  Every war crime is taken as evidence by the rest of the world that the terrorists are right, that the United States is the Great Satan, and blowing up more buildings is justified.

I mean, we’re murderers, after all, minimally accessories to murder by funding the venture.  And if only a few thousand people need to die to stop murderers, that’s better than laying siege to the entire country.  By your own logic, you should be on board with that.  Unfortunate when it’s turned back on us, no?

Dale, as I said, I’m not siding with the people who dropped the bomb at all.  It’s just that, the more I read up on the period, the harder it is to start the condemnation there and single it out as opposed to just considering it the final act of a decade of continuous war crimes that get brushed under the carpet.

If you compare the stories from Hiroshima’s survivors with the people who were caught near firestorms in Berlin, for example, it unfortunately becomes really hard to call the atomic bomb worse.  I mean, a bombing that suffocates people in their shelters strikes me as more cruel than radiation poisoning, though I can understand the other perspective, too.

And yes, war from the Spanish Civil War on is basically medieval siege tactics blended with terrorism.  Starve and torture the civilian population (without “targeting them,” mind you—they’re just convenient collateral damage) and they’ll go running to their leaders to stop the war.  It has yet to work, but somehow it has become the go-to strategy.

I remember reading that it was actually questioned once in British Parliament.  The Blitz didn’t sideline the British, after all, so why would anybody expect it to cow the Germans?  The answer was that the British were clearly sterner and could take more punishment…

Writing to agree with John.
Hiroshima and Nakasaki were state terrorism, unnecessary according to the top generals and staff, targeted civilians, women, children, the elderly and the wounded.

But firebombing is also a weapon of mass destruction that can be as evil, as it is a form of chemical warfare (fire is a chemical reaction).

Any justification for killing civilians is evil, and in some sense, more evil than the actual act carried out by soldiers carrying out orders.  Those who justify mass murder of innocent civilians are more guilty than those underlings who drop the bombs.  All are guilty of war crimes.

The particular horror of the A bomb, however, is that it was 1) totally unnecessary and 2) it upped the scale of mass murder.

Non-state terrorists have killed tens of thousands; state terrorists have killed tens of millions.  The US has killed millions and supported those who have killed millions more. 

If anyone says, you must obey orders to kill people when the chances of civilians casualties is real, it is incumbant to say NO.

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.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories