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The Obama administration disclosed its long-awaited estimate Friday that between 64 and 116 noncombatants were killed in 473 counter terrorist airstrikes since January 2009, but officials pointedly declined to dispute much higher estimates of civilian casualties from outside groups.
“We acknowledge that (our) assessments may be imperfect,” one administration official said in a background call with reporters.
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“The purpose here is not to dispute the assessment of conscientious people who have done field interviews,” another official said.
Those remarks left unclear whether the U.S. was categorically rejecting the higher estimates by non-government organizations, one of which counts more than 1,000 civilians killed in the targeted strikes. Last week, NBC News reported that the White House was set to announce a civilian casualty total between 80 and 120.
Most of the strikes in question were carried out by unmanned drones against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA conducted most of the attacks, but the tally also includes drone strikes by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command and some bombing runs by manned Air Force aircraft.
Administration officials touted Friday’s disclosure as an exercise in transparency. Obama also signed an executive order calling for an annual disclosure of civilian deaths, and officials promised to make periodic disclosures about civilian deaths. But the bare numbers shed no light on where and when the deaths took place, making it impossible to reconcile the U.S. tally with several well-known allegations of drone mistakes.
For example, JSOC in 2013 carried out a strike in Yemen that killed 12 people who were deemed militants. But local officials said the strike hit a wedding party, and CIA analysts could not say with confidence that all the dead were combatants.
And after a CIA strike in 2011 killed 44 in Pakistan, CIA officials insisted the dead were all linked to the Taliban. But Pakistani officials said the agency had hit a meeting to settle a mining dispute, and that most of those killed were civilians.
Asked why the U.S. should be trusted to grade their own work, the officials said the U.S. had access to better information, in many cases, than outside groups.
However, “at the end of the day this is U.S. government information and people can make their own judgments about how to receive it,” a senior administration official said.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, issued a statement praising the disclosure and saying he hoped “the release of this data will help to undercut inflated estimates of civilian casualties.”
U.S. officials said they cited a range because the evidence wasn’t always clear about whether someone was a civilian. Even for military-aged males living and working alongside militants, “we err on the side of these individuals being noncombatants until proven otherwise,” one official said.
Evidence that would lead them to label someone a militant, he said, includes, “the extent (to which) the individual performs functions to the benefit of any particular terrorist group.”
The 473 strikes included in Friday’s disclosure do not include the attacks carried out as part of the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The military has mounted 10,332 air strikes in that effort and acknowledged around 40 civilian deaths.