In the waning months of his presidency, the Obama administration has finally released an assessment of civilians killed in its drone strikes outside areas of “active hostilities.” An Executive Order accompanying the assessment also promises the protection of civilians in counter-terrorism operations, an acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties, and financial compensation for victims or their families.
According to the three-page summary released by the Director of National Intelligence, the US has killed 64 to 116 “non-combatants” in 473 US drone strikes since 2009. It is impossible to compare the government’s aggregate assessment to much more thorough, case-specific information compiled by independent sources such as the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Even still, the government figure is absurdly low and previous reporting on civilian deaths in just a handful of drone strikes already approaches the high-end of casualties admitted to by the government.
And yet to quibble with the numbers, even as it is necessary, would be to miss the point. The release of the assessment and the Executive Order has precious little to do with the long-awaited transparency. Instead, it is a calculated attempt to ensure Obama’s legacy is untainted by a program of extrajudicial murder and wanton killing, one which extends beyond any recognizable battlefield.