US Drone Strikes on Pakistan: Counting the Bodies (Ross)

Alice K. Ross writes at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The US government must release its estimates of how many people are being killed in CIA drone strikes, to end an over-reliance on often scanty media reports, a new study on drone casualties says.

The absence of ‘hard facts and information that should be provided by the US government’ means that the public debate is dependent on estimates of casualties provided by organisations including the Bureau, academics at Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Clinic said. This risks masking the ‘true impact or humanitarian costs’ of the campaign, they added.

The study also found that the two US-based monitoring organisations, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation – have been under-recording credible reports of drone civilian casualties in Pakistan by a huge margin.

When all credible reports of casualties for the year 2011 were examined, only the Bureau was found to properly reflect the number of civilians reported killed.

Related story – Obama risks handing ‘loaded gun’ drone programme to Romney










Report shows how three monitoring bodies reflected credible reports of civilian deaths for 2011

Counting Drone Strike Deaths is the second report to be released within weeks by Columbia University Law School. Its previous report examined the impact on civilians of US drone campaigns in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Counting Drone Strike Deaths examined the Bureau’s database of drone strikes in Pakistan alongside the work of two other organisations that track drone strikes and their reported casualties, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation. Each of the three gathers media reports of particular strikes and keeps a running tally of casualties.

The Bureau’s data ‘appears to have a more methodologically sound count of civilian casualties’

The work of all three has ‘permeated and significantly impacted debate’ in the past year. However the Human Rights Clinic found the Long War Journal and New America Foundation both ‘significantly undercount’ civilian deaths.

Such underestimates carry real risk, the report said: ‘they may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups’.

And the report warned media organisations against regularly citing data from either New America Foundation or the Long War Journal: ‘Exclusive or heavy reliance on the casualty counts of these two organisations is not appropriate because of the significant methodological flaws we identify,’ it states.

Missing casualties
Researchers examined every drone strike reported in 2011, and compared the datasets of each of the three organisations with the available English-language media reports.

The Human Rights Clinic found that according to the available reporting, between 72 and 155 civilians were credibly reported killed by drone strikes in 2011.

The New America Foundation, which is widely cited by many US media organisations, reported only that between three and nine civilians had been killed in the same period – an underestimate of 2,300%, according to the researchers. And the Long War Journal counted 30 civilians killed. By contrast the Bureau’s minimum estimate of 68 civilian deaths was significantly closer.

The Bureau’s data ‘appears to have a more methodologically sound count of civilian casualties’ due to using more sources than other organisations, employing field researchers to corroborate accounts on the ground and updating its data on individual strikes when new information emerges, the report said.

But there are inherent problems with relying predominantly on media reporting that apply to the Bureau’s work as much as to the New America Foundation’s or the Long War Journal’s. The tribal region of Waziristan, where the vast majority of strikes take place, is notoriously difficult for reporters to access: much reporting relies on stringers or conversations with locals.

The New America Foundation, which is widely cited by many US media organisations, found between three and nine civilians had been killed in the same period – an underestimate of 2,300%, according to the researchers. And the Long War Journal counted 30 civilians killed. By contrast the Bureau’s minimum estimate of 68 civilian deaths was significantly closer.

Only a handful of incidents are reported in any kind of depth – usually those where a highly ranked militant leader has been killed or there was a particularly heavy loss of life, the report’s authors note. Most strikes are only reported in very basic terms, and it’s not uncommon for reports to contradict one another, including in the number of people reported killed. Quotes confirming strikes usually come from anonymous locals or officials – who may have their own motivations for describing the dead as militants or civilians.

And the term ‘militant’ is dangerously ambiguous, the report’s authors add: the US has provided no legal definition, although in May it emerged that the US administration classifies all Waziri men of fighting age as militants. Only the Bureau consistently uses the term ‘alleged militant’ in its reporting – a policy the study suggests that other organisations adopt.

All of this means that the counts provided by the Bureau and similar organisations are ‘estimates, not actual body counts’. Yet there is a danger that such estimates are ‘assimilated into fact, they threaten to become what everybody knows about the US drone strikes program’, the report says – when in fact no such certainty exists. They risk becoming an ‘inadequate’ and even ‘dangerous’ substitute for official figures.

One strike, three stories
On October 30 2011, missiles fired by a drone hit a vehicle and, according to some reports, a house in Dattakhel, North Waziristan. While anonymous officials said the dead were all militants, unnamed locals insisted they were civilians, and that four of them were chromite miners, naming one of them as Saeedur Rahman, a chromite dealer. But the Bureau, the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal’s accounts of the incident tell three different stories.

The New America Foundation reported that 3-6 ‘unknowns’ had died, citing six sources, while the Long War Journal reported that six ‘militants’ had died, based on two reports.

But looking at 12 sources, the Bureau reported that 4-6 people had been killed including four civilians. In March 2012 the New York Times published an investigation into the strike naming three more of the dead and repeating the claim that they were chromite miners; the Bureau incorporated the names into its data.

The report’s authors agreed with the Bureau’s assessment that 4-6 died including four civilians, and said the identification of the remaining two was ‘weak’ as it was only confirmed by anonymous officials. Meanwhile, multiple sources suggested four of the dead were miners.

US officials have been keen to hold up the drone programme as a great success, the report’s authors note, while claiming that to release estimates of the numbers killed would jeopardise US security. But it has previously released similar information for Afghanistan without issue.

Chris Woods, who leads the Bureau’s drones investigation team, welcomed the Columbia findings. US monitoring groups have been significantly under-reporting credible counts of civilian deaths for some time, he said, which had been distorting public understanding of the impact of the US bombing campaign in Pakistan.

‘While the Bureau’s drones data is clearly shown to be the most accurate reflection of what’s publicly known about the drone strikes, both by the Columbia study and the recent Stanford/ NYU report, there is an urgent need for the US to publish its own estimates of who it is killing in Pakistan and elsewhere.’

Read Counting Drone Strike Deaths


Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Responses | Print |

21 Responses

  1. no discussion necessary
    indiscriminate murder

    a war crime and a crime
    against humanity

    this infernal machine we’ve
    built will surely destroy us

    in our lifetimes
    and on our watch

    • No discussion necessary
      for those with closed minds,

      who are unable to differentiate
      between self-defense and war crimes,

      who continue to ignore the substance
      of Article 51 of the UN Charter,

      which grants the US the right of self-defense
      against the terrorist martyr,

      “But wait,” cries the ideologue
      certain of his moral superiority,

      “surely we have no right
      to make self-defense a priority,”

      Al-Qaeda and the Taliban
      upon hearing the ideologue’s cry,

      are moved to greater efforts
      to attack the US and its ally,

      until one fateful day plotting attacks
      against the UN Charter,

      a drone homed in and hit its mark
      one less terrorist martyr

      • thanks bill
        i enjoyed that

        you’re the first one [on the net] to use my manner
        of expression in an attempt to impugn my argument

        i’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘apologist’
        your kind of thinking has led to this present situation

        if ‘our ally’ and even the usa, thinks it can continue
        to ‘strong-arm’ the rest of the world towards it’s will,

        we have forgotten our recent history circa the 20th century.
        when one nation [or an alliance] tries to exceed their reach

        the other nation states [and alliances] gather to set them straight
        this is where we are now and as the aggressors we will fall [fail]

        • In the war between al Qaeda and the United States, the United States is the aggressor?

          Would you care to walk that back? Maybe take another shot at it?

      • Yah, Bill, it’s all so simple — Cowboys and Indians, Nazis and Spitfires, all that except of course it’s really Spy vs. Spy, and no freakin’ good or decency among the Sneaky Petes on either side. How many FATA militants, resisting “central government” and supporting drug trafficking that maybe “our” CIA and other sneaky-petes might possibly be involved with, as they’ve been in the past, along with a lot of other off-the-reservation bullshit, fit within your hyper-elastic definition of “martyr terrorists?”

        Here’s one of “OUR” Mooslum Martyrs:

        link to

        Would you like a deck of the post cards that the author has for sale, maybe for Christmas?

        And in your version of the world, yours and your opposite, but interchangeable but for the nouns, number, “We” just have to do our self-preservation (sic) dirty business through guys like that, because That’s The Way The Great Game Is Played. Of course, it sure seems like every round in the Great Game is, what do they call it, “negative sum,” especially for the mopes suckered into paying the freight for your kind of thinking. One percipient author penned this little observation: “But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.” And yes, that’s on one of my imaginary 3×5 cards, along with a lot of other useless stuff.

        It would be a waste of time to suggest you read some stuff by somebody like Barbara Tuchman, who appreciates “The March of Folly,” listing many of the idiot, counter-intuitive, clearly-against-enlightened-self-interest behaviors of rulers and their retainers, courtiers and apologists, through the ages since “civilization” started growing on the backs of slaves growing surplus grain back in Mesopotamia or wherever.

        • “It would be a waste of time to suggest you read some stuff by somebody like Barbara Tuchman”

          Once again, Mr. McPhee, you demonstrate how ready you are to pronounce on subjects of which you have no knowledge. Take your comment cited above. I probably read Barbara Tuchman before you had even heard of her. Yes, I have read “The Guns of August,” “The Proud Tower,” “The March of folly,” and a lot more as well. You, however, (if you have indeed read Tuchman at all, rather than just selectively take phrases out of context to put on your 3×5 cards) fail to understand that you cannot effectively invoke her writings to criticize anything you happen to disagree with. Ms. Tuchman would be the first to acknowledge that fact.

  2. 160 death/ a year is not very much. Compare this to wars like Korea or Vietnam, where millions lost their lives.Even in Iraq we had about 150 000 death.Even in Libya more people were killed when thy toppled Ghaddafi.Therefore Obama´s war in AfPak is very restricted and low-intensity.Why such harsh critisism by Juan Cole? What sort of war does he want?

  3. The CIA & US military have zero credibility & I wouldn’t trust any figures they willingly released.

    • I noticed that, too. The demand that the U.S. government release their estimates, so that the Bureau can check its work, is quite disingenuous.

    Republicans 1980-2009 controlled Presidency for 20 years—Senate for 18 years-House for 12 years-6 years of total control
    In those 20 years our budget went to 3500 Billion from 600 Billion under Carter.
    Of course Clinton added a little of that 2900 increase.
    The Big 3 took Carter under 1000B debt to 10,000.
    Took Clinton surplus to a 1400B deficit. First time to exceed 1000B.
    Took Carter record job creation of 218,000 per month down to 99,000 per month.
    “Initiated” our involvement in 10 foreign conflicts. In 12, Carter + Clinton=0
    The Big 3 had recession in all or part of 7 years.
    The Big 3 destroyed our wonderful Savings and Loan Industry which was instrumental in the housing boom for Middle Class 1945-1980.
    The Big Three smashed our Housing Industry. !945-1980, it took 2.5 years of average income to buy an average size home to 5.4 years.
    The Big Three allowed Wall Street to Outsource entire Industries and in past decade close 58,000 plants. I can show plenty in my home town.
    The Big Three alienated 1500 Million Muslims by invading their destitute unarmed Iraq
    of only 15 million adults. What had those 15M done to us?

  5. Even the highest estimates are remarkably low for a modern war, comparable to the total number of civilians killed by the UN mission in Libya in six months (which is also remarkably low for a modern war).

    The Bureau’s median estimate to be correct, it would take approximately three decades for the air campaign over Pakistan to kill as many civilians as the 9/11 attacks – which reminds me, how many civilians are al Qaeda killing these days?

    I know that the civilians killed by al Qaeda have an annoying tendency to be white and American, but I must insist that their lives still have value, and that the ability of the drone missions to prevent additional deaths should be taken into account when considering their impact from a humanitarian perspective.

    • For those who like to look at actual numbers and stuff, maybe Joe could share where he gets his “al Qaeda” body counts of “American whites” — and was that a little tell, there, Joe? “White?”

      There are Americans of other colors too. Do “al Qaedans” kill them too? Here’s one among many sources that do a horrible calculus of how many people “al Qaeda,” however you choose to denominate what gets put into that category of “the enemy,” has killed: link to

      Obviously a Commie Shill.

      And speaking of calculuses, “remarkably low for a modern war,” that’s an interesting set of comparisons you do, relating drone-dead Innocent Noncombatants to the numbers killed in Real Actual Soldier War, somewhat reminiscent of the numbers our Generals used to run, with their buddies from the RAND Corporation in the days of MAD and MAssive Retaliation and all those sneaky contingency plans for how to pull off a decapitating strike against the Hated Soviets, counted in ‘megadeaths’ n’ stuff: link to And those Generals, and the Single Integrated Operational Plan and its successor still in effect, ruling how all those nuclear warheads and bombs will be “used up,” are still running the doctrines and strategies and tactics of still more predestined failures like Iraginakipakistan, and The Great Big Planetary Integrated Interoperable Networked Battlespace Big War. link to

      These are the people we are supposed to be putting all our faith and trust and money in the supposedly capable hands of? To “run the world?” And the CIA guys who were going to kill Castro with poisoned cigars? And you write something like “humanitarian perspective”?

      But not to worry, guys, I’m just one among a few little Not Serious Little Ranters with a little stack of 3×5 cards. Everything is under adult control, you can sleep well. Tomorrow will be no better, and hopefully no worse…

  6. Someone should do a study that estimates how many innocent lives are saved by our drone strikes. Then, the claim that they save far more lives than they end could be verified or refuted. If the claim is correct, what is the ratio?
    Of course, our government will never release any info on how it picks its’ targets.
    I would guess that in places like Yemen, you could get on the hit list by being a part of a seperatist movement.

  7. Joe, with all due respect most civilians killed by Al Qaeda have not been white and American but indigenous people. If you add the Taliban and other militant groups, the number increases further. If the New York Times or WaPo feel like reporting on a bombing in Iraq, it’s always a nameless group of bystanders – majority of the time indigenous Iraqis. But often, the papers dont report these attacks, you’d have to read local media. And the Americans in Iraq are not there in civilian capacity are they? In citing the “humanitarian perspective” you are only including us, you forget the vast majority of affected folks — those from the country. Why is that? Arent they people too? Is there no consideration the human toll on people who just happened by coincidence to be in the vicinity where the bomb or shooting takes place? You know, you can google “Iraqi” or “Afghan” newspapers come up with a list and read these – google also offers translation for newspapers in local languages. It’s flawed but you can find insightful information

    • You are, of course, correct; the decimation of al Qaeda has probably saved many more lives in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia than in the United States.

      And the Americans in Iraq are not there in civilian capacity are they? Actually, they are now.

      In citing the “humanitarian perspective” you are only including us, you forget the vast majority of affected folks — those from the country. Why is that?

      Because it cuts to the heart of the argument against fighting al Qaeda: that the United States shouldn’t defend itself, and that terrorist attacks are something we’ve got coming to us.

  8. Since 9-11-2001, 16 Americans were killed by terrorists on US soil. 14 of those happened after we started droning Pakistan
    You are 4 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terror attack. We should be spending billions deflecting lightning.

  9. i suppose these apologists have no clue as to what blowback is. so i won’t even go there. why waste my energy.

    just wait till they do come back with a response, like 9-11, for instance.

    but that is just a fantasy line of thinking. these people are terrorists first and foremost. and we will kill every one of these “kind” just to prove we are ‘better and humane” and all the rest of the “argument”.

    what i can’t understand is, “why do these “infidels” hate us so much? try as i do, that question just remains unanswered. if i only had a brain, or a heart! can someone explain that to me? i’m just too dumb to “get” it.

    three cheers for the American Way. and down with Terrorists, you know those muslim jihadist kind.

    • “i suppose these apologists have no clue as to what blowback is. so i won’t even go there. why waste my energy.
      just wait till they do come back with a response, like 9-11, for instance.”

      Actually, Bernard, you are the one who: A. Confuses supporting the counter-terrorism program with being an apologist; B. Doesn’t understand blowback; and C. confuses cause and effect regarding terrorism, counter-terrorism, and “blowback.”

      Supporting the counter-terrorism program and the drone strikes is not being an “apologist,” because no apology is necessary regarding a program of self-defense that is sanctioned by Article 51 of the UN Charter.

      You have the cause and effect of “blowback” exactly backwards. The “blowback” you refer to is actually what is being directed against the terrorist leaders and operatives being targeted by the drone program. It is the result of their attacks against the United States. They are the ones experiencing “blowback” as a result of their ongoing efforts to plan and execute attacks against the U.S.

      And their efforts did not start with 9/11. Let’s roll the tape: The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the discovery of the plot to blow up six airliners over the Pacific in 1996; the bombing of our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998; the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000; and, yes, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001; not to mention all the plots uncovered sense then.

      Taking out Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and those of affiliated organizations has not only saved countless lives, it is the right thing to do.

    • just wait till they do come back with a response, like 9-11, for instance.

      Kindly remind me, which of the 9/11 attackers came from countries the United States was waging a war against?

      Be specific. You do seem terribly impressed by your understanding of the causes of terrorism, so no doubt you have the answer right at your fingertips.

      I wonder, when a white supremacist or anti-abortion radical commits an act of terrorism, do you blame their victims then, too?

  10. lol, what a wonderful use of the internet. we really are there, aren’t we. interesting comments for interesting times.

    enjoy the show folks. bread and circuses.

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