The fog around drones casualties

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An impressive new interactive infographic provides a striking example of how much the drone war in Pakistan has escalated during the Obama administration. It also highlights the lack of clarity around just who is killed by this barrage of drone strikes.

The creator Wesley Grubbs talked to Popular Science about why it is so hard to categorize some of the casualties:

Popular Science: More than 75 percent of the victims fall into the “other” category. That means you’re working with a data set three-fourths of which is unclear. Is it challenging to make a visualization for something so unknown?

Grubbs: It’s not necessarily unclear. People simply call them something different. …Our goal was to help bring light to this uncertainty. These are people who are accused of being something without any representation before they are eliminated. Is this something we want to support? And if they are military combatants, are they even a threat to America? The CIA is not disclosing any information to support their decisions in who to target and this is something people should understand.

The public and Congress face the challenge of trying to have an informed debate about the use of drone strikes with so little information. The administration labels all military-age males killed as combatants, unless specific evidence arises to exonerate them. As the infographic points out, experts estimate that only 2% of those killed are high-level targets. What little we know from the administration’s legal white paper on targeting American citizens shows an extremely loose definition of who poses an imminent threat (and it’s hard to imagine they’re more stringent when targeting non-Americans).

I highly recommended clicking through for the full interactive experience.

To have a fuller debate on drones policy, we have been forced to rely on outside groups doing the best they can to document casualties. During John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, he tried to assuage concerns, making the dubious claim that casualties are rare, noting “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths” [emphasis mine]

Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) backed him up, claiming that civilian casualties have been in the “single digits” and that Congress is performing rigorous oversight.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, however, could find no evidence that Congress or the administration has consulted with groups doing rigorous work to document the impact of the strikes:

Professor Sarah Knuckey, who co-led the recent field investigation by New York and Stanford universities into the Pakistan strikes, confirmed that her team has never been contacted by any US government official, or Congressional oversight committee member or aide.

‘US officials have stated that they have done their utmost to verify civilian casualty numbers, and that they investigate and take seriously reports of civilian harm. These public commitments are welcome,’ Knuckey told the Bureau.

‘But if the commitments are serious, why haven’t officials followed up with the organizations and journalists who investigated strikes and collected information relevant to determining any civilian harm?’

Those concerns were echoed by Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Thirty months after it issued its ground-breaking report into civilian deaths, Holewinski said this week that ‘we have never been contacted by Administration officials about our research and analysis on the covert drone program.’

This hardly meets a definition of rigorous oversight. Now that Congress is paying more attention and raising some questions about the use of armed drones, they need to delve into all the available information, and the administration must be more forthcoming with Congress and the public.

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