Far more civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas than U.S. counter-terrorism officials have acknowledged, a new study by human rights researchers at Stanford University and New York University contends.
The report, "Living Under Drones," also concludes that the classified CIA program has not made America any safer and instead has turned the Pakistani public against U.S. policy in the volatile region. It recommends that the Obama administration reevaluate the program to make it more transparent and accountable, and to prove compliance with international law.
"Real people are suffering real harm" but are largely ignored in government or news media discussions of drone attacks, said James Cavallaro of Stanford, one of the study's authors.
Cavallaro said the study was intended to challenge official accounts of the drones as precise instruments of high-tech warfare with few adverse consequences. The Obama administration has championed the use of remotely operated drones for killing senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, but the study concludes that only about 2% of drone casualties are top militant leaders.
The CIA and Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment.
The report says 130 people were interviewed by researchers in Pakistan over a nine-month period, including 69 survivors or family members of victims. The interviews took place in Pakistan outside the dangerous tribal areas. The researchers relied on a Pakistani human rights group, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, to find interview subjects.
Allegations of large numbers of civilian deaths have dogged the drone effort in Pakistan since its inception in 2004 under President George W. Bush. Under President Obama, drone strikes have emerged as the core element of a U.S. strategy aimed at disrupting and eliminating the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, where militants have taken refuge to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
The drone strikes have soured relations with Pakistan, which has complained about civilian deaths and infringements on its sovereignty. The Obama administration has said that drone strikes have killed few, if any, civilians.
The study authors did not estimate overall civilian casualties because of limited data, Cavallaro said. But it cites estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has reported extensively on drone strikes, of 474 to 884 civilian deaths since 2004, including 176 children.
In April, Obama's top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, described civilian casualties from drone strikes as "exceedingly rare." Brennan said the drone program has reduced danger to U.S. pilots, limited civilian casualties and helped prevent deeper U.S. military involvement overseas.
In January, Obama in effect acknowledged the drone program when he said the U.S. must be "judicious in how we use drones."
The Times reported in June that lawmakers from both parties who serve on congressional oversight committees are convinced the CIA takes great care to avert civilian casualties. The committee members said independent tallies, including those by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, are often based on local news reports that are wrong. Committee staffers review video and records associated with each strike.
Cavallaro said the report decided to give more credence to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report rather than an analysis by the Long War Journal, a website that monitors drone strikes, which estimated 138 civilians killed since 2006. The site relies too heavily on anonymous and Pakistani government sources, Cavallaro said.
The study challenges official versions of three attacks between 2009 and 2011, including a drone strike on March 17, 2011, that killed an estimated 42 people. The gathering was a jirga, a meeting of elders, called to settle a dispute over a chromite mine, the report says.
According to the report, most of those killed were civilians, including elders and auxiliary police. Only about four known members of a Taliban group attended, the study says, citing survivors and news accounts. U.S. officials insisted that all the dead were militants, the report says.
The authors recommend that the U.S. Justice Department publicly state the legal basis for targeted killings by drones and the criteria for "signature strikes," those authorized against armed men who fit the profile of militants. The report says the strikes violate international law because, in part, the government has not proved the targets are direct threats to the United States.