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US drone strike body count doesn’t add up, rights groups sayBloomberg02 July 2016US President Barack Obama has signed an executive order intended to prevent civilians from being killed in drone strikes after releasing a death toll.US military and intelligence agencies have killed as many as 116 civilians in air strikes on militants since Obama took office, the White House said.Obama ordered US agencies to avoid harming civilians in strikes on terrorists, and said the government would annually report the number of strikes it undertakes and casualty estimates for both civilians and combatants. The White House’s figures were questioned by human rights groups, who said independent assessments had identified many more civilian deaths in the drone campaign.“This is a powerful tool, one that has been used to great effect and one that has made Americans safer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of the strikes. But Obama believes the drone campaign “requires a structure” to ensure accountability, and that the public deserves “at least some transparency” about the results of strikes in which civilians are killed, he said.Between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in 473 US strikes outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria between the beginning of Obama’s presidency and the end of 2015 and they killed as many as 2,581 combatants, the government said. The figures include casualties from strikes by drones and by manned aircraft, but don’t include casualties inflicted by US personnel on the ground.“It’s hard to credit the government’s death count, which is lower than all independent assessments,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.[Protesters burn an effigy of a US aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is US interference in Yemen, including drone strikes. Photo: Reuters]Protesters burn an effigy of a US aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is US interference in Yemen, including drone strikes. Photo: ReutersThe London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 380 and 801 civilians were killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya during the period covered by the report. And the Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, estimates 207 civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during the period covered by the White House’s report.Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, called the report “a long-overdue step toward greater transparency”, but said it was impossible to corroborate without more information on who the government targets and how it distinguishes between civilians and combatants.“Unless details are provided on specific incidents, it’s not possible to determine if individuals killed were civilians, and thus whether the US is complying with its own policy and with international law,” Pitter said.The report on past strikes didn’t break down total casualties by year, by region, or by country. An administration official who insisted on anonymity said the White House doesn’t intend to release such details.Obama’s executive order covers strikes undertaken “outside areas of active hostilities”, and is the first time the government has been required to issue systematic public reports on a campaign of clandestine drone strikes created by President George W. Bush and escalated dramatically under Obama.“Certainly the question of civilian casualties is a critically important one,” Earnest said.
Military-age males aren’t automatically considered combatants, nor are people within any given distance of a target, said an administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The administration makes assessments based on drone video, electronic intercepts of communications, intelligence sources on the ground, foreign governments, and public information such as media reports and reports from non-governmental organisations, the official said.A second official, who also briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the estimates differ from those made by some non-governmental groups and that the assessments are imperfect because the drone attacks usually happen in areas where US personnel cannot easily operate. The official said the US government often has access to information outside groups don’t possess, while groups with staff on the ground may have access to information the US doesn’t have.Obama has said that he and his advisers “anguish” over the drone programme. Drone strikes are vetted at the highest levels of government and require “near-certainty” that civilians won’t be killed to be authorised, Obama has said.“I wish I could just send in Iron Man,” Obama said. “I don’t mean that as a joke.”Additional reporting by Associated Press
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