WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will disclose how many people have been killed by U.S. drones and counterterrorism strikes since 2009, the White House said Monday, lifting one element of secrecy shrouding the controversial counterterrorism program.
Both combatants and civilians the U.S. believes have died in strikes from the skies will be included in the report, which covers the period since President Barack Obama took office. It won’t cover major fighting zones like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but will focus on the shadowy regime of strikes against extremist targets in other regions such as North Africa.
In recent years, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, among other places.
In the most recent example, a weekend strike using multiple drones and manned aircraft killed more than 150 al-Shabab fighters in Somalia, the Pentagon said Monday. A barrage of missiles and bombs hit a site called Raso Camp where the U.S. had been watching fighters from the al-Qaida-linked group prepare for a suspected imminent, large-scale attack, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis. He said there were no known civilian casualties.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said the assessment would be released “in the coming weeks,” casting it as part of a commitment to transparency for U.S. actions overseas. Monaco said the figured would be disclosed annually in the future, although it will ultimately be up to Obama’s successor to decide whether to continue the practice.
“We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet key questions will remain unanswered — including the full scope of the U.S. drone program. The U.S. doesn’t publicly disclose all the places its drones operate, so the report isn’t expected to detail specific countries where people died.
Instead, it will offer an aggregate assessment of casualties outside of areas of “active hostilities” — a designation that takes into account the scope and intensity of fighting and is used to determine when Obama’s specific counterterrorism policies apply. Iraq and Syria, where U.S. airstrikes are pummeling the Islamic State group, currently are on that list and won’t be in the report, said a senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
“There will obviously be some limitations on where we can be transparent, given a variety of sensitivities — including diplomatic,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The casualty report marks the latest attempt by Obama to shore up credibility for the drone program, which has attracted fierce criticism from civil rights advocates but plays a key role in Obama’s strategy of targeting extremists without encumbering the U.S. in massive on-the-ground military operations. In 2013, Obama tightened rules for drone attacks, requiring that a target poses a continuing and imminent threat and that the U.S. is near-certain that no civilians will be killed.
Deaths have declined significantly since then, although the furtive nature of the program has continued to fuel concerns about unintended consequences and lack of thorough oversight. Civilian deaths from drone strikes have fomented anger among local populations in places like Pakistan, fueling anti-American sentiment that has vexed U.S. efforts to seek greater security cooperation from foreign governments.
U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups have long pressed for more transparency about civilians killed by U.S.drones, but those calls have traditionally faced opposition from the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. officials say few civilians have died from drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere over the last decade, though unofficial tallies by human rights groups run into the hundreds.
In 2014, lawmakers from both parties demanded an annual report as part of the main intelligence bill, but later dropped the demand amid assurances that the Obama administration was seeking ways to disclosure more about the program.
Although many U.S. strikes in areas like North Africa are launched by drones, the report will also cover other lethal counterterrorism operations like bombing raids, officials said.
Obama’s move to shed more light on the drone wars comes as the U.S. struggles to contain extremist groups and violent ideologies that are metastasizing, posing a growing threat in places like Libya even as the U.S. and its partners work to defeat IS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Monaco, the counterterrorism adviser, described the strikes as one tool in a fight against terrorism that has entered a new, unpredictable phase nearly 15 years after the 9/11 attacks. In place of top-down, well-organized groups like al-Qaida, the threat has shifted to a diffuse array of smaller groups and lone actors in what Monaco dubbed “do-it-yourself terrorism.”
“What keeps me up at night is that this threat is unlike what we’ve seen before,” she said.