Today President Barack Obama's administration is publicly releasing some information about the collateral damage caused by using armed drones to try to strike down terrorists in foreign countries. Whether anybody believe the figures being provided is another matter entirely.
Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released numbers for what it claims are combatant and non-combatant deaths for drone strikes in countries outside of formal war zones. This means countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, but specifically not Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
The federal government says that out of 473 drone strikes in these countries, they've killed between 2,372 and 2,581 actual combatants and between 64 and 116 non-combatants. This formal recognition of the number of non-combatants killed is far below what independent observers to be an accurate accounting. The New York Times notes:
In a seeming acknowledgment that the long-anticipated disclosure would be greeted with skepticism by drone critics, the administration released the numbers on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The use of a range of estimated civilian deaths underscored the fact that the government often does not know for sure the affiliations of those killed.
"They're guessing, too," said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has tracked civilian deaths for more than a decade. "Theirs may be a little more educated than my guesses. But they cannot be completely accurate."
Outsiders (depending on the group) estimate between 200 and 1,000 non-combatants have been killed by drone strikes outside of war zones.
The ODNI report predicts this criticism and says it believes its numbers are more accurate because it has better information: "The U.S. Government draws on all available information (including sensitive intelligence) to determine whether an individual is part of a belligerent party fighting against the United States in an armed conflict; taking a direct part in hostilities against the United States; or otherwise targetable in the exercise of national self-defense. Thus, the U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations."
Critics of America's use of drones, though, say the government actually operates almost the opposite of what it just described. In The Assassination Complex, by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, sources tell them that the government frequently assumes that those it kills are enemy combatants unless it gathers evidence that says otherwise.
Regardless of how trustworthy the numbers are, it's still a formal acknowledgment that the American government is killing innocent people in countries in which we do not have an active war. The larger question, though, is whether the American public actually cares. A Pew poll from 2015 shows that a majority of Americans—58 percent—support using drone strikes to target extremists. Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike all support using them in majority numbers, though in lower numbers among the Democrats and independents.
Read the ODNI report here.