Undercounting Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes

A new study from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute finds that the number of Pakistani civilians killed in drone strikes are “significantly and consistently underestimated” by tracking organizations which are trying to take the place of government estimates on casualties, which the Obama administration won’t comment on because the drone war is technically secret.

The study “warns that low civilian casualty estimates may provide false assurance to the public and policymakers that drone strikes do not harm civilians.” Many low-ball estimates – like those from Long War Journal and New America Foundation – are due to reliance on news reports, which “suffer from common flaws” like trusting “anonymous Pakistani government officials or unnamed witnesses for the claim that ‘militants’ – rather than civilians – were killed.”

“In the rare but significant cases where on-the-ground reporting has offered evidence of civilian deaths from drone strikes,” the report’s press release said, “the U.S. government has failed to officially respond or provide information about whether it conducts its own investigations into potential civilian deaths. The report calls on the government to investigate reports of civilian casualties, track and release drone strike casualty information, and disclose the standards and definitions it uses to categorize individuals as subject to direct attack.”

The report focuses on how news reports as well as these tracking organizations can get sloppy when identifying civilian casualties. But it leaves out how the Obama administration has chosen to count civilians. According to the New York Times, the administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Academia seems to have begun to pay more attention to the drone war. Follow up reading this study by reading last month’s study from the Stanford and NYU schools of law – Living Under Drones.

15 thoughts on “Undercounting Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes”

  1. "Of the three organizations,only the Bureau has consistently purported to actively track civilian casualties—as opposed to focusing on providing an estimate of the overall number of individuals killed. Nevertheless, news analysis and political commentary frequently cite New America Foundation and Long War Journal’s numbers in making conclusions about the impact of drone strikes on civilians and local communities." (pg. 5)

    Only the Bureau of Investigative journalism claims to consistently track civilian deaths, and the study found that they did. The "significantly and consistently" quote you begin with refers to the other two.

    "Two of the organizations,according to our independent review of the media sources available,significantly and consistently underestimated the potential number of civilians killed in Pakistan during the year 2011" (pg. 4)

    You skimmed over a big part of the problem. News organizations are treating imprecise information as precise information.

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