U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes: Combatants and Civilians by the Numbers

capitolIn accordance with the President’s Executive Order and agenda of increasing transparency with regards to the use of lethal force against terrorists, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has published the Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities. Current areas of active hostilities include Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, therefore these numbers represent strikes that have occurred outside of those areas between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015. From the report:

Total Number of Strikes Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities: 473

Combatant Deaths: 2,372-2,581

Non-Combatant Deaths: 64-116

The White House has released a fact sheet which further details the rigor with which these strikes are planned and executed. Quoting President Obama, “All armed conflict invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life. Yet the President does admit that “near certainty” on the presence of the targeted terrorist and a lack of non-combatants is the “highest standard we can set.” As visible by the numbers above, near certainty was not enough to keep civilians out of the crossfire.

DNI does make it very clear that the strategy involved in the planning of counterterrorism strikes is immensely empirical, and is based on best practices and “all-source intelligence”. “The large volume of pre- and post-strike data available to the U.S. Government can enable analysts to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, conduct detailed battle damage assessments, and separate reliable reporting from terrorist propaganda or from media reports that may be based on inaccurate information.”

That last part about media and inaccurate information tends to ruffle a few feathers. The Washington Post’s coverage of the data focuses on the lack of detail surrounding the numbers, and the low-balling nature in general. The Post claims that since the figures do not include the date or location of the strikes, the administration is protecting itself from “meaningful public scrutiny” and that analysis performed by independent groups tracking civilian deaths have “produced far higher numbers.”

Discrepancies in data notwithstanding, the current administration has taken institutional steps to solidify a counterterrorism program with standards, ethics, transparency, and an empirical backbone.