What does it matter if the United States government no longer wants to share details about who is being killed by its covert drone strikes when the information was never fully revealed in the first place?
US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that allows the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to stay mum over the information about people, including civilians, killed in drone strikes.
Since 2004, the CIA and the US military have carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia – countries where Washington is not fighting a direct war but where it targets suspected terrorists.
No one knows for sure exactly how many innocent lives have been consumed by weapons such as Hellfire missiles released from Reapers and Predator drones that fly thousands of feet in the air over people the United States has deemed worthy of being targeted.
Up until now, Washington had released scant details about the programme twice – both times by former president Barack Obama’s administration. And they were cumulative figures without a breakdown by year or country.
Hardly any details about the locations of strikes or those killed in them come out from official channels. The CIA never comments.
Very often official casualty figures don’t tally with independent estimates – usually reported from the ground in the countries where the strikes take place.
For instance, in 2016, the US government admitted that a minimum of 64 and a maximum of 116 civilians were killed in drone strikes carried out between 2009 and 2015.
But the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalists, which relentlessly covered the strikes, put the civilian death toll between 380 and 801 during the same period.
“Okay, now we have this decision that CIA doesn’t have to publish the stats but I wonder when they did in the past,” says Emran Feroz, a journalist and author of a book on US drone operations.
“They have already been intransparent in the past and now we see them being more intransparent. I think this is a development that’s shaping the whole Trump administration in general.”
The US has ramped up the use of drones to hit suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia since Trump took office in 2017, increasing the number of strikes manifold.
What makes the situation even grimmer is the fear that Trump has given a free hand to military commanders to use armed drones that the US insists remains an effective counterterrorism tool.
A drone can hover for hours, gathering surveillance on a target before they launch an attack. But the way the technology has been deployed has thrown its legitimacy into doubt.
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One of the first things that president Obama did after taking office was to authorise a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering war-torn Afghanistan. It turned out to be a disaster.
The CIA misjudged and the missile hit the wrong house, killing six people, including several civilians. That didn’t stop Obama. He thought drones were a better way to take out terrorists than the costly and politically challenging deployment of US soldiers.
Just in its first year, the Obama administration ordered more drone strikes than his predecessor president George W Bush’s administration did in eight years in office.
It wasn’t just the numbers, but the way the operations were carried out that made it a subject of criticism.
In what became known as ‘signature strikes,’ such as the one on March 17, 2011, in which 26 people were killed during a tribal jirga meeting in North Waziristan, the drone operators took decisions on a whim.
“The people who operate the drones don’t know who they are killing on the ground. Everyone looks similar in a drone camera. Often you can’t distinguish between an armed militant, a shepherd or a woman,” says Feroz, citing what Lisa Ling, a former US drone technician, and others, had told him.
“This has radicalised more people on the ground.”
Human rights organisations argue for official recognition of drone strikes because independent verification is difficult.
Feroz, who is of Afghan descent, and has researched the impact of drone strikes, says affected areas in Pakistan, Libya or Somalia are difficult to reach for independent researchers.
“These places can be dangerous, out of reach for many journalists and mostly rural. But local journalists in these countries have done a good job of collecting information.”
The problems activists face in verifying civilian casualties are even starker in places like Yemen where a devastating war has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
Worse still, the human suffering of the wars in Yemen and Libya remain underreported.
“President Trump has drastically increased the number of strikes and special operations raids in Yemen. In his first year in office he launched more drone strikes there than happened in the entire Obama tenure,” says L E Picard, the executive director of the Yemen Peace Project.
Journalists who cover the aftermath of drone strikes face a hard time selling their stories to foreign publications because of a lack of public interest, he told TRT World in a recent interview.
Washington has continuously underestimated the civilian death toll from the use of drones in Yemen such as the one that killed more than two dozen people in January 2017.
Initially, the US said between 4 and 12 civilians might have been killed. Later NBC News reported that the number could be 16 and then the Bureau of Investigative Journalists reported from the ground and found that at least 25 people had perished.
Only once did a US president apologise for non-combatants killed in drone strikes. And that was in 2015 when Obama expressed regret for the death of an American and an Italian who were held hostages in a house hit by a missile.
No official has apologised for more than 6,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
“What I fear more is the next stage of this drone warfare when artificial intelligence will be used to carry out the strikes,” says Feroz. “Who would you hold accountable then?”