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US Drone Strikes Have Killed as Many as 116 Civilians: White House

People gather near a destroyed car that was carrying militants in the Sawmaa area of al-Bayda province, Yemen, Saturday, April 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Nasir al-Sanna'a)
People gather near a destroyed car that was carrying militants in the Sawmaa area of al-Bayda province, Yemen, Saturday, April 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Nasir al-Sanna'a)

The White House on Friday released an intelligence estimate that showed between 64 and 116 civilians have been killed, along along with about 2,500 suspected terrorists, in airstrikes mostly by drones outside of war zones.

The summary from the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper didn't give a timeline on the airstrikes or in where exactly they occurred, but most were believed to have taken place in Pakistan.

The three-page summary said that between January 20, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2015, the U.S. carried out a total of 473 airstrikes outside of war zones -- mostly by drones and some by cruise missiles. The "combatant deaths" numbered between 2,372 and 2,581, while "non-combatant deaths" were estimated at between 64 and 116, according to the document.

"The assessed range of non-combatant deaths provided to the DNI reflects consideration of credible reports of non-combatant deaths drawn from all-source information, including reports from the media and non-governmental organizations," the summary said.

The range of civilian deaths also reflected "deaths for which there is an insufficient basis for assessing that the deceased is a combatant," the summary said.

The summary also acknowledged major differences with the estimates on civilian casualties compiled by non-governmental organizations and humanitarian groups.

"For instance, for the period between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, non-governmental organizations' estimates range from more than 200 to slightly more than 900 possible non-combatant deaths outside areas of active hostilities," the summary said.

To explain the difference, the summary said that the U.S. reporting had access to classified information unavailable to non-governmental organizations. "Thus, the U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations," the summary said.

The Washington Post reported that the summary did little to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the drone strikes outside war zones but did "help to delineate the overall dimensions of a drone program that grew from an experimental CIA platform designed to hunt Osama bin Laden into a clandestine air force carrying out hundreds of strikes from bases in at least nine countries on two continents."

In addition to drone strikes in Pakistan, the U.S. also carried out strikes outside war zones in Yemen, Somalia and Libya, the Post said.

In addition to the summary, President Barack Obama issued an executive order tightening the guidelines for the use of force and enhancing training for intelligence and military operatives while noting that "civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state's inherent right of self-defense."

The order directed "relevant agencies" to acknowledge U.S. responsibility for civilian casualties when they occur and to "offer condolences, including 'ex gratia' payments (payments made when there is no legal obligation) to civilians who are injured or to the families of civilians who are killed."

The executive order also directed the agencies to "develop, acquire, and field weapon systems and other technological capabilities that further enable the discriminate use of force in different operational contexts."

In a fact-sheet accompanying the intelligence summary and the executive order, the White House said Obama has been clear since he took office that "when necessary, the United States will use force abroad to protect the American people consistent with our values and all applicable law, including the law of armed conflict."

To that end, the president in 2013 "approved and publicly described policy guidance formalizing and strengthening the rigorous standards and procedures governing our use of lethal force against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities."

The new executive order was intended to "enhance best practices regarding U.S. counterterrorism operations and other U.S. operations involving the use of force, as well as to provide greater transparency and accountability regarding these operations," the White House said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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