On the Friday afternoon before Independence Day weekend, the Obama administration finally released some long-promised numbers publicly documenting how many people—both suspected terrorists and civilians—have been killed overseas by American drone strikes.
The administration had been reluctant to publicly acknowledge the existence of its extremely secretive drone program, even as more information leaked out about the process by which suspected terrorists were added to the “kill list” as targets, and even as independent groups tracked the deaths on their own.
According to the official data released in July, between 2009 and 2015 America has engaged in 473 drone strikes in countries where it is not currently involved in direct military activity. This includes Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, but it excludes countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. In those strikes, American officials say we’ve killed between 2,372 and 2,581 “combatants” and between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” (that is, civilians).
The number of civilians the government is willing to acknowledge having killed is far below what nongovernmental groups, such as the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have calculated. Their estimates range from 200 to 800 non-combatants dead. Critics of America’s drone strike tactics say the administration overstates the number of combatants they’ve eliminated by assuming that military-aged men fit the bill unless proven otherwise. The administration denies this charge.