London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism today released a leaked Pakistani report, which for the first time reveals its government’s internal assessment of drone strikes, showing high tallies of civilian casualties.
The 12-page secret document provides new data on the number of civilian deaths, including children, caused by US and NATO strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The report documents 75 CIA drone strikes and five NATO attacks conducted between 2006 and 2009, and reveals that 746 people—and not the “50 to 60” that the US continues to claim—were killed in the attacks. At least 147 of the victims were non-combatants and 94 were children, according to the Bureau.
The United States has firmly held onto the claim that only a small number of non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan “despite research by the Bureau and others suggesting that over 400 civilians may have died in the nine-year campaign.”
The internal Pakistani document revealed that the actual tally, recorded and compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage following attacks, is not far off from earlier media compiled tallies, with a few exceptions. It shows that “have been aware of those deaths for many years.”
The Bureau did say, however, that there are noteworthy gaps in the investigation. The document does not include names for those killed, or have any recording of casualties for 2009. Still, Chris Woods, leader of the Bureau’s drone investigation team and author of the report, said the document, which was never intended for public release, came from three trustworthy sources.
The drone campaign has becoming increasingly controversial for President Obama—who has taken heat for significantly increasing the number of attacks. While the US claims very few civilian lives have been lost, the CIA refuses to release any document with their own recorded data.
“Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," Obama said in a May 2013 speech on national security.
GlobalPost spoke with Woods to find out what the leak of the document and the data in its contents mean, and what we can hope for following its release.
GlobalPost: What can we make of the timing for the document’s release? Is there any significance behind the decision to reveal Pakistan’s confidential internal data now versus any other time?
Chris Woods: There’s no specific or particular timing involved in this. What I can say is I’ve been aware of this document for more than a year, but because of the source it originally came to me from, it was very difficult to get out there into the public domain.
This really was a game of patience for me. And as I say, in the end I managed to get it from three independent sources and it was a coming together, really, of timings, that allowed us to publish it now. This is as soon as we could manage it.
GP: What does the numbers here reveal? Can people expect to see more documents of this nature any time soon?
CW: I think we treat this as a highly credible source. It’s coming from the political secretary of the FATA, but we treat it as we do any other source. We measure it and balance it against other sources, we check for anomalies, and so on. And then incorporate it into a broader understanding.
Interestingly, it hasn’t radically altered our own numbers of reported deaths. I think that is quite interesting. Many of the deaths in this leaked document, to a significant degree, tally with the public record of deaths reported by media at the time or in subsequent investigations. So this is sort of private Pakistani information on what, really, the media had been reporting all along, but particularly in the early days of the CIA bombing campaign. A pretty significant number of civilians were killed.
GP: What are the implications of this new information, or the expectations following the confirmation of the numbers that were previously only really being acknowledged in the media?
CW: We are in a ludicrous situation right now where the supposedly secret bombing campaign is discussed publicly by the US and Pakistani governments weekly. President Obama spoke about it in his NDU [National Defense University] speech a few weeks ago. Prime Minister Sharif speaks almost daily about these drone strikes and how he wants them to stop. So there’s nothing secret about this campaign at all.
I think the only thing secret is what the CIA and the Pakistan government want to keep secret from us. I think what this highlights is nine years of bombings, and all sorts of claims and counterclaims have been made about who people think have been killed, and it’s high time, really, for the CIA to publish its own estimates as to who it thinks it has killed, so that that can be measured against what we think we publicly know.
I’m absolutely certain that were the CIA to do that, we would learn a great deal about these strikes and we would have to radically reassess our own understanding of some of them. But I just don’t think it’s tenable with so much information from other sources out there now, that the US can keep saying ‘no, no, no, we’ve hardly killed any civilians. You know, there’s no reason for us to be public about this.’ Well, public record shows now, pretty extensively from every source, that a significant number of civilians have died.
The only people disagreeing with that are the CIA and the US government themselves. So, if there’s one thing I hope comes out of this it’s that this will lead us a little further down the line toward some kind of disclosure from the US about whom it’s really been killing since 2004.
GP: How likely do you think it is that the CIA will release that sort of information to the public?
CW: I’m actually reasonably optimistic! John Brennan who is the new director of the CIA, indicated in his follow-up answers to questions from congressmen after his confirmation hearing, that he would like to see, within the bounds of US national security, data published on civilians killed by the CIA. I think John Brennan himself would like to see this happen, and I think that’s to be absolutely encouraged.
Until we know who the CIA thinks it’s killed, and their status, and can then measure that against what everybody else thinks, we’re not really going to understand how effective this bombing campaign has been. If the Pakistan government and the media think that 10 women and children have died in the strike, but CIA says no civilians at all died, that’s something we really need to get to the bottom of. Until we get to the bottom of that, how can we talk about the success or the failure of the CIA’s bombing campaign?