NEW YORK – Recent revelations that the US killed an innocent American in a drone strike in Pakistan confirm what a new study, “Death by Drone,” of civilian harm caused by US drone strikes in Yemen shows – that claims about the precision of drone strikes are overstated. The revelations also underscore the stark asymmetry between how the US treats drone strikes that kill its own citizens and those that kill others. While the Obama administration has now publicly acknowledged that it has recently killed three US citizens in drone strikes, it has refused to acknowledge countless other drone strikes around the world which have killed non-US civilians.
In Yemen, the US has been conducting drone strikes since at least 2002, with estimates of the total number of strikes ranging from 91 to 203. While the American and Yemeni governments have lauded the drones’ precise targeting, they have refused to meaningfully disclose key details about the strikes, including how many have been conducted, who has been targeted, or, crucially, the number and identities of civilians killed.
In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama offered assurances that, outside the Afghan war theater, no drone strike would be carried out unless there was “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Obama also claimed that the US targets only “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and that it does not launch drone strikes when it has “the ability to capture individual terrorists.”
“Death by Drone,” which includes first-hand testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors of drone strikes in Yemen, tells a different story. The nine case studies documented in the report, four of which cover attacks that came after the 2013 speech, provide credible evidence that US drone strikes have killed and injured Yemeni civilians, suggesting that the “near-certainty” standard is not being effectively implemented.