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How Many People Has Barack Obama Killed With Drones?

It’s a good thing the administration is bending to public demands for greater transparency about its drone policy because the more we hear, the more reason we have to believe that the kind of hit reported this week — that of Wali ur-Rehman, the alleged Taliban #2 man in Pakistan — is the exception rather than the rule.

“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top Al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” President Obama is reported in this week’s New York Times to have said in response to criticism that he’s soft on terrorism.

The reference to “top Al-Qaeda leaders” echoes a statement by then Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, now CIA Director John Brennan in an April 30, 2012, speech at the Wilson Center: “A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of Al-Qaida or one of its associated forces.”

In addition to the “top Al-Qaeda leaders” theme, the president, in a speech last week, noted several further constraints on drone operations: “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target Al-Qaeda and its associated forces ... America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; ... our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty ... (W)e act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured ....”

All good news. But against this backdrop, one would conclude that a mere handful of drone strikes have targeted a few dozen people who, like Wali ur-Rehman, are known, specific, senior operational leaders of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban and associated forces, that they were plotting imminent violent attacks on Americans and couldn’t be captured before conducting their attack. One would also conclude that civilian casualties have been few.

There’s just one problem. The actual number of drone deaths is at least 200 times the "22 top Al-Qaeda leaders plus Bin Laden" noted by President Obama. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) recently floated the number 4,700. Independent studies by both U.S. and British investigators have confirmed numbers in that ballpark, with many of those being “collateral damage.” But let’s, for the sake of simplifying the arithmetic, take a conservative round number of 4,000 deaths against a hypothetical 300 senior operational enemy leaders. After all, President Obama did not say that we have killed only 23 people with drones.

Here are three possible reasons for the discrepancy.

1. The number 4,000 is wrong and the correct number killed is more like 300. Given the mounds of existing evidence about the number of drone strikes since 9/11, the number 300 doesn’t pass the straight face test. The New America Foundation tallied 355 strikes in Pakistan alone, many involving multiple deaths. Assuming all the 300 senior operational leaders were killed in Pakistan strikes (certainly not the case), and assuming near-zero tolerance for civilian casualties, the average number of strikes to kill one person would be a hard-to-believe 1.2.

2. 300 senior operational leaders were targeted and the remaining 3,700 casualties are collateral damage. This absurd assumption would mean, on average, an excess of 100 civilian casualties for each target exists. While civilian casualties are not prohibited by the law of armed conflict and there’s no precise formula for an acceptable ratio of targets to civilians killed, there is a rule of proportionality and an average of 100 civilians killed for each senior operational leader would clearly place the program in the category of horrible policy, if not war crimes.

3. The administration is not being forthright about who it targets and about the number of civilian casualties. By process of elimination, this seems to be the only reasonable conclusion.

The reality is that U.S. drones have killed thousands, rather than dozens or a few hundred, and that many of them were civilians. The lion’s share of these killings surely could not occur under any dictionary definition of “imminent threat.” Most questionable are the so-called “signature strikes,” where targeting is based on circumstantial evidence rather than known identity of the target.

All this raises serious questions about compliance with international law, the wisdom of the policy and the administration’s failure to own up to the lethal gap between what it says and what it does. To close the gap, the administration should disclose the number of drone strikes and casualties, disaggregated for “targets” and “collateral damage.” It should also disclose the process and criteria used to authorize the strikes. And it should create a robust mechanism for after-action review, including support for, rather than opposition to, the right of victims to judicially challenge and seek compensation for wrongful attacks. Only then will we know that the president who doesn’t engage in appeasement also doesn’t tolerate a policy of arbitrary killing.

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