Human Cost

Facts About the U.S. Drone Program
Human Cost

For over two decades, the US government has actively downplayed or denied the killing of civilians by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS). Euphemistic language invoking the “precision” of this modern weapon has been repeatedly deployed by state officials, and uncritically promulgated by the mainstream press. Take for instance the following claim uttered by John O. Brennan, the former counter-terrorism advisor to US President Barack Obama, and current director of the CIA:

“One of the things President Obama has insisted on is that we’re exceptionally precise and surgical … if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.”

In September of 2012, a group of scholars from both Stanford and NYU law schools published a 182-page report titled “Living Under Drones,” in which they urged both state officials and the general public to “re-evaluate” the current US policies addressing “terrorism through targeted killings and drone strikes.” To justify this re-evaluation, they listed four central reasons, including, of course, civilian casualties. In their own words, “while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.”

Based on the estimates provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based not-for-profit organization first established in 2010, the report claims that “from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals.”

Source: Chris Woods, “Absolute Zero: The CIA’s Drone War and Civilians,” The Huffington Post, 19 July 2011; International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan vii (2010). See also Mary Ellen O’Connell, The Questions Brennan Can’t Dodge, The New York Times Opinion Pages, Feb. 6, 2013.

In its latest report dated from April 1, 2015, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism provides the following estimates:

(June 2004 to date)
(Nov 2002 to date)*
(Jan 2007 to date)*
(Jan 2015 to date)
US drone strikes 414 90-109 9-13 2
Total reported killed 2,445-3,945 431-639 23-105 15-21
Civilians reported killed 421-960 65-96 0-5 0
Children reported killed 172-207 8 0 0
Reported injured 1,142-1,720 86-215 2-7 0

As explained by the BIJ, the “estimates are based predominantly on open sources information like media reports. Sometimes it is not possible to reconcile details in different reports. This is why use ranges for our record of casualties and, in the case of Yemen and Somalia, our strike tallies.”

Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Recorded US Drone Strikes to Date, April 1, 2015.

Further investigations into the so-called “precision” of US drones and targeted killing operations reveal an even more grotesque reality. In November of 2014, the British human rights charity Reprieve released a report on the deaths resulting from US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan from November of 2002 to November of 2014. In general terms, it concluded that “US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named individuals.” It worth mentioning here a summary of Reprieve’s major findings:

In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children. In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths. In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. They failed twice, and Ayman al Zawahiri is reportedly still alive. It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children. Each assassination target on the US government’s so-called Kill List ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death.

Jennifer Gibson, an attorney and author of the report, evinced what we believe should be by now a self-evident fact:

These ‘high value targets’ appear to be doing the impossible – dying not once, not twice, but as many as six times. At the same time, hundreds of unknown men, women and children are also caught in the crosshairs. President Obama continues to insist drone strikes are ‘precise’, but when targeting one person instead kills as many as 128 others, there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn – there’s nothing targeted about the US drone programme.

Source: Reprieve, US Drone Strikes Kill 28 Unknown People for Every Intended Target: New Reprieve Report Reveals, November 25, 2014; and Reprieve, “You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the US Drone Program” (2014).