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Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes

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Doesn’t the U.S. sometimes target people whose names they don’t know?

Yes.  While administration officials often have frequently framed drone strikes as going after “high-level al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” against the U.S., many strikes go after apparent militants whose identities the U.S. doesn’t know. The so-called “signature strikes” began under Bush in early 2008 and were expanded by Obama. Exactly what portion of strikes are signature strikes isn’t clear.

At various points the CIA’s use of signature strikes in Pakistan in particular have caused tensions with the White House and State Department. One official told the New York Times about a joke that for the CIA, “three guys doing jumping jacks,” was a terrorist training camp.

In Yemen and Somalia, there is debate about whether the militants targeted by the U.S. are in fact plotting against the U.S. or instead fighting against their own country. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the drone program, toldProPublica that the U.S. is essentially running “a counterinsurgency air force” for allied countries. At times, strikes have relied on local intelligence that later proves faulty. The Los Angeles Times recently examined the case of a Yemeni man killed by a U.S. drone and the complex web of allegiances and politics surrounding his death.

How many people have been killed in strikes?

The precise number isn’t known, but some estimates peg the total around 3,000.

A number of groups are tracking strikes and estimating casualties:

How many of those killed are have been civilians?

It’s impossible to know.

There has been considerable back-and-forth about the tally of civilian casualties. For instance, the New America Foundation estimates between 261 and 305 civilians have been killed in Pakistan; The Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives a range of 475 – 891. All of the counts are much higher than the very low numbers of deaths the administration claims. (We’ve detailed inconsistencies even within those low estimates.)  Some analyses show that civilian deaths have dropped proportionally in recent years.

The estimates are largely compiled by interpreting news reports relying on anonymous officials or accounts from local media, whose credibility may vary. (For example, the Washington Post reported last month that the Yemeni government often tries to conceal the U.S.’ role in airstrikes that kill civilians.)

The controversy has been compounded by the fact that the U.S. reportedly counts any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a militant. An administration official told ProPublica, “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.” It’s not clear what if any investigation occurs after the fact.

Columbia Law School conducted an in-depth analysis of what we know about the U.S.’s efforts to mitigate and calculate civilian casualties. It concluded that the drone war’s covert nature hampered accountability measures taken in traditional military actions. Another report from Stanford and NYU documented “anxiety and psychological trauma” among Pakistani villagers.

This fall, the U.N. announced an investigation into the civilian impact – in particular, allegations of “double-tap” strikes, in which a second strike targets rescuers.

Next page: Why just kill? What about capture?

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U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Stanley Thompson

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74 comments

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9:50AM PDT on Apr 9, 2013

Thank you ProPublica, for Sharing this!

6:32PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

The blood dripping mass killers of children have not yet killed your children in New Zealand. Your opinion means nothing while defending our children. Convince your country to bow to Allah and you will only have to accept servitude in exchange for death.

5:55PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

You so miss the real power of the drone, it is the air raid siren that goes off too late.

Fear from above, singular cotained power hard flown with great precision.

I am a realist went thru the 50's I remember doing stupid crap like getting under your desk to stop an nuke attack from killing you.

Humans love war, we would never know what to do with peace as we have to prove this is better than that and its my way or....blah blah

They decide to shoot you with a drone, kiss your ass goodbye, don't worry about the right or wrong of it,. will not much matter.

2:03PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Reading all this makes me think who are the real terrorists here? An eye for an eye approach, well look at the figures how many 100th of thousands of civilians were killed in the following wars and retaliation for the supposedly terrorist attack of 9/11.

America claims to be a democracy yet neglects everybody else basic human rights, just label someone terrorist and he can be detained or killed without any due process. And what are the results, did this bring any peace or prevent any further terrorist attacks or was it not about that in the first place.

Former President George W. Bush is now officially a war criminal against Iraq and crimes against humanity in Malaysia (http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/05/12/bush-convicted-of-war-crimes-in-absentia/) as a couple of others. And lucky for them that the High Court in Den Haag hand down death sentences and does not use drones to execute them.

But looking at the Patriot Act and NDAA (http://www.examiner.com/article/ndaa-martial-law-new-law-signed-causes-outrage) you should not feel to comfortable either. It's a historic pattern to rule by terror and seems to be good business for America which was likely the reason in the first place for all this.

11:15AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

David? "Gene, easy to protest when your own family and children are not in harms way. Just like the water-boarding flap, liberals that had no personal risk were outraged."

I'm not sure what point you are trying to make, David. I have no children, both of my sons have preceded me and are certainly not in harms way. You toss waterboarding out as if it were a walk in the park, just another day at the office. I hold us as a species to a higher moral standard than that. My opposition to torture is because I believe interpersonal violence to be against my moral standards, always, except in the defense of self or another in imminent danger. What would the world be like if every nation had a "kill list" and drones to use to reduce it? The sky would be filled with weaponry is what would happen. We hold no moral high ground here by using torture or killing without due process. Very few nations do things we do in other countries. They might if they had the capability but that isn't the point either. Nor is liberal or conservative pertinent. It is what kind of PEOPLE are we that we do such things. Just because we can. I think torture and the use of drones lessens us morally. And I would regardless my political affiliation.

4:51AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

I leave it to others to justify the need to drone. But make no mistake - droning 'takes no prisoners'.
Say what you will about water-boarding and gitmo, at least Bush took prisoners.

4:46AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Thanks for this article.

3:43AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Kind of make me question the whole role of law thing. What's the difference between this and profiling? What's the difference between this and the police being able to hold you without the courts approving?

2:28AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

"This fall, the U.N. announced an investigation into the civilian impact – in particular, allegations of “double-tap” strikes, in which a second strike targets rescuers."

Now that is TERRORISM!

8:52PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

(con't )

... massively reduce civilian casualties and quickly end wars.

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Beth Buczynski Beth is a freelance writer and editor living in the Rocky Mountain West. So far, Beth has lived in... more
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