WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will disclose how many people have been killed by U.S. drones and counterterrorism strikes since 2009, the White House said Monday, lifting one element of secrecy shrouding the controversial counterterrorism program.
Both combatants and civilians the U.S. believes have died in strikes from the skies will be included in the report, which covers the period since President Barack Obama took office. It won’t cover areas of “active hostilities” like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but will instead focus on the shadowy regime of strikes the U.S. launches against terrorist targets in other parts of the world such as North Africa, where U.S. strikes on Saturday killed more than 150 people in Somalia.
In recent years, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, among other places.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said the assessment would be released “in the coming weeks,” casting it as part of a commitment to transparency for U.S. actions overseas. Monaco said the figured would be disclosed annually in the future, although it will ultimately be up to Obama’s successor to decide whether to continue the practice.
“We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups have long pressed for more transparency about civilians killed by U.S. drones, but those calls for more disclosure have traditionally faced opposition from the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. officials say few civilians have died from drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere over the last decade, though unofficial tallies by human rights groups cite higher figures that run into the hundreds.
In 2014, lawmakers from both parties demanded an annual report as part of the main intelligence bill, but later dropped the demand amid assurances that the Obama administration was seeking ways to shed more light on the program. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at the time that the administration was balancing transparency interests with the need to protect classified information and confidential sources.
The casualty report marks the latest attempt by Obama to shore up credibility for the drone program, which has attracted fierce criticism from civil rights advocates but plays a key role in Obama’s strategy of targeting extremists without encumbering the U.S. in massive on-the-ground military operations. In 2013, Obama tightened rules for drone attack, requiring that a target pose a continuing and imminent threat and that the U.S. must be near-certain no civilians will be killed.
Deaths have declined significantly since then, although the furtive nature of the program has continued to fuel concerns about unintended consequences and lack of thorough oversight. Civilian deaths from drone strikes have fomented anger among local populations in places like Pakistan, fueling anti-American sentiment that has vexed U.S. efforts to seek greater security co-operation from foreign governments.
Although most of the U.S. strikes taking place in areas like North Africa are drone strikes, the report will also cover other lethal counterterrorism operations like bombing raids carried out by the U.S. since 2009.
In the most recent example, a weekend strike using multiple drones and manned aircraft killed more than 150 al-Shabab fighters in Somalia, the Pentagon said Monday. The missiles-and-bombs barrage hit a site called Raso Camp where the U.S. had been watching al-Shabab fighters prepare for a suspected imminent, large-scale attack, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Because the U.S. doesn’t publicly disclose all the drone strikes it takes, the report isn’t expected to detail the specific countries where people died, instead offering an aggregate assessment. Although the report doesn’t cover the highest profile conflicts like Iraq and Syria, officials stressed that the U.S. seeks to limit use of force and avoid civilian casualties in those conflicts as well.