The Obama administration released its first, and last, annual report summarizing U.S. government strikes on "terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities," which the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) defines in the report as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The report was mandated by an executive order President Obama signed just last year. The Obama administration previously brought up the idea of more drone oversight prior to the 2012 election, but didn't really get anywhere.
This year's report listed the number of strikes in 2016 at 53, with 431 to 441 combatants and one non-combatant. The report explains in a footnote that non-combatants are "individuals who may not be made the object of attack under applicable international law." The report does not offer any details on the method of the strikes, in which countries they occurred, nor the identities of any combatants or the lone non-combatant.
"The assessment of non-combatant deaths provided to the DNI reflects consideration of credible reports of non-combatant deaths drawn from all-source information, including reports from the media and non-governmental organizations," the report notes, without offering any details or sourcing. "The assessment of non-combatant deaths can include deaths for which there is an insufficient basis for assessing that the deceased is a combatant."
In the non-combatant footnote, the only footnote in the page and a half document, the DNI defines a "non-combatant" by what they were not. "The term 'non-combatant' does not include an individual who is part of a belligerent party to an armed conflict, an individual who is taking a direct part in hostilities, or an individual who is targetable in the exercise of U.S. national self-defense." The DNI also insisted that "it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants."
In 2012, The New York Times reported about the redefinition of the term "civilian" during the Obama administration which had, in effect, according to administration officials, meant all military-aged males in a strike zone.
This week's report follows one last summer that offered similarly suspicious numbers. That one reported that from the beginning of the Obama administration through the end of 2015, U.S. strikes killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 civilians, "a fraction of even the most conservative estimates on drone-related killings," The Intercept reported. For 2016, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provides extensive coverage of the U.S. drone war, identified 49 strikes outside of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which killed at least 4 to 6 civilians, and 362 to 507 other people killed in strikes
The Bureau estimates that between the start of the Obama presidency and the end of 2016, between 384 and 807 civilian deaths in U.S. strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. The Obama administration's final estimate falls at between 65 and 117 civilians.
USA Today was unable to get comment from the Obama White House, noting that "Most of the White House press office had left the administration by Thursday," and also reporting about concerns Donald Trump may revoke the executive order that requires even this meager report on U.S. strikes around the world. The final number for the Obama administration is likely to be larger—the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported covert U.S. activities in Yemen earlier this month.