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Politics & Government

White House Documents Number Of Civilians Killed In U.S. Drone Strikes

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Obama administration announced today that up to 116 innocent civilians have been killed in American air strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen. That's all since President Obama came into office. This is the first time the White House has offered a public accounting of the casualty figures. But critics say the administration is lowballing the number of civilian deaths.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And, Scott, what have we learned today about the scope of the administration's airborne counter-terrorism campaign?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, in the first seven years of the administration, U.S. forces carried out some 473 air strikes on suspected militants outside the active war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Some of those strikes were carried out by manned aircraft, but mostly by drones. And White House spokesman Josh Earnest says this has been a powerful tool in the counterterrorism effort. More than 2,300 suspected militants were killed. But it's mostly been done under wraps.

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JOSH EARNEST: The fact is these operations are the kinds of operations that, just a couple of years ago, we wouldn't even confirm existed.

HORSLEY: And, in fact, the administration is still skittish about saying just where these strikes take place. In some cases, that's a nod to the foreign governments who don't want to acknowledge U.S. drones are circling their airspace.

SIEGEL: Now, Scott, the administration admitted that it has killed as many as 116 innocent civilians. Is it apologizing for those deaths?

HORSLEY: The administration says it takes responsibility and, where possible, it makes payments to the victims' families, but there are independent tallies from groups like the New America Foundation which show a much higher number of civilian casualties. The administration acknowledges that discrepancy. It says some of that may stem from a disagreement over who is a militant and who is not. The government says it might have secret intelligence showing someone who looks to an outsider like an innocent bystander is actually a dangerous militant.

Now, New America's Peter Bergen says it's kind of hard to argue with that since the administration's not even saying where the strikes are happening or who's been killed.

PETER BERGEN: We're operating in the public sphere, and they're operating in the secret sphere. And they're not saying how they make these determinations publicly.

HORSLEY: Some independent tallies show 5 to 10 times as many innocent civilians killed as in the administration's own figures.

SIEGEL: And why did the government decide to make these figures public?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House has been under pressure to be more transparent. And it also figures the more people know about its drone program, the more public support there will be. Bergen actually agrees with that, saying scrutiny has already made the drone program better.

BERGEN: When you know your homework is being graded in some shape or form, you're going to be more careful. And the fact is - is that we've seen a falling number of civilian casualties over time because there's more public interest in the subject, there's more congressional interest in the subject. And this is part of this process.

HORSLEY: And President Obama issued an executive order today calling for an updated tally to be made public annually.

SIEGEL: Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.