The United States on Friday lifted the lid on President Barack Obama’s secretive counter-terrorism campaign, detailing for the first time the number of fighters and civilians killed in air strikes in countries like Pakistan and Libya.
At the same time, the White House released an executive order outlining the steps and measures that should be taken to reduce the number of civilian casualties in America’s ongoing counterterror campaign.
In a much-anticipated report, the Director of National Intelligence provided fatality estimates for 473 strikes between 2009 and 2015 that were conducted outside principal war zones such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The DNI said anywhere from 64 to 116 civilians were killed in the strikes, and up to 2,581 combatants.
Such attacks are typically conducted via drones, though manned warplanes and missiles have also been used.
Though the US military routinely releases information on strikes targeting the Islamic State group and other organizations, mainly in Iraq and Syria, it is the first time the Obama administration has published a toll from its strikes elsewhere, in countries like Libya, Somalia and Pakistan.
The release comes after rights groups and the media for years demanded a better accounting of such military actions under Obama.
Critics have long said US strikes — especially drone strikes — kill far more civilians than the administration claims, and Friday’s release is unlikely to change that narrative.
Observers also say that without better transparency surrounding strikes, it is impossible to gauge the accuracy of US fatality assessments.
“The public has a right to know who the government is killing — and if the government doesn’t know who it’s killing, the public has a right to know that,” American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer wrote this week.
The DNI acknowledged the fallibilities of its own numbers.
“Although the US government has access to a wide range of information, the figures released today should be considered in light of the inherent limitations on the ability to determine the precise number of combatant and non-combatant deaths given the non-permissive environments in which these strikes often occur,” the DNI said in a statement.
The White House meanwhile released an executive order that provides additional information on “best practices and procedures” that can be applied to strikes, regardless of where they are conducted.
“The president has underscored that we will continue to develop a sustainable legal and policy architecture to guide our counterterrorism activities going forward,” the White House said.