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Is CIA undercounting civilian drone deaths?

The CIA's tally of how many civilians killed in drone strikes may be inaccurate.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

The CIA's tally of how many civilians killed in drone strikes may be inaccurate.

The Central Intelligence Agency keeps count of how many people it kills in drone strikes aimed at suspected terrorists, but that doesn't mean its numbers are accurate. 

A Washington Post report published Wednesday sheds more light on the covert relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan over the use of drone strikes in the latter country, even as Pakistani leaders publicly express disapproval of the operations. The story also reveals how Obama administration officials who have defended the use of targeted killings of suspected terrorists have arrived at their conclusion that the strikes kill few civilians. Two former Obama administration officials have offered warnings about the use of drones this week, with former defense secretary Robert Gates telling an audience at a military conference not to be "overly enamored" with technological advances in warfare and a former state department official stationed in Yemen saying the strikes create more terrorists than they kill.

According to the Post, the CIA has tables that keep count of how many civilians and "combatants" are killed in each strike. But in many of the strikes, known as "signature strikes," the names of the combatants aren't known, and they are simply assumed to be combatants based on a "pattern of behavior."

"Although often uncertain about the identities of its targets, the CIA expresses remarkable confidence in its accuracy, repeatedly ruling out the possibility that any civilians were killed," the Post reported. Here are a couple of examples from the story:

On Jan. 14, 2010, a gathering of 17 people at a suspected Taliban training camp was struck after the men were observed conducting “assassination training, sparring, push-ups and running.” The compound was linked “by vehicle” to an al-Qaeda facility hit three years earlier.

On March 23, 2010, the CIA launched missiles at a “person of interest” in a suspected al-Qaeda compound. The man caught the agency’s attention after he had “held two in-car meetings, and swapped vehicles three times along the way.”

Earlier this week, two human rights groups released reports suggesting that far more civilians had been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen than the Obama administration has acknowledged. While even the president has admitted that the strikes occasionally kill civilians, he has insisted "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed" before an attack takes place.  

Determining the number of civilian casualties under such circumstances is a difficult task--even for the human rights groups that devote significant resources to doing so. If the CIA is simply counting zero civilians killed in operations where it can't say for certain who the agency is even firing at, that doesn't inspire much confidence in their numbers.