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Columbia University: Counting Drone Strike Deaths

Author: Columbia Law School
October 2012


The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic undertook a study of the impact that U.S. drone strikes have on civilian populations, as well as the difficulties in accurately tracking consequent civilian casualties.

Popular debate on U.S. drone strikes often centers on how many individuals are killed, and which of two categories the individuals killed fall into – militant or civilian. U.S. officials emphasize the precision of drone technology and contend that extremely few civilians have been killed. Yet others have questioned these claims and stated that there is evidence to suggest that deaths, and civilian deaths in particular, are much higher than U.S. officials admit.

The uncertainty about civilian deaths is largely due to the U.S. government's resistance to openly providing information about strikes. In the absence of official data, the most common source for drone strike casualty figures is news reports about particular strikes. Some organizations have catalogued and aggregated these news reports to provide overall estimates of the total number of individuals killed, including the number of "militants" versus "civilians." The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Long War Journal and New America Foundation ("tracking organizations") are among the most influential of such organizations, and their work has in many instances catalyzed debate about the effectiveness and humanitarian cost of strikes.

We are concerned about overreliance on the tracking organizations' estimates of drone strike casualties, although we find the estimates valuable and a good faith effort. The estimates reflect an echo chamber of sorts: the tracking organizations collect news reports of particular strikes and make an estimate of who is killed based on them; these estimates are then regularly cited and repeated in subsequent news stories and media analysis pieces.

In the limited public debate on drones, the tracking organizations' estimates substitute for hard facts and information that ought to be provided by the U.S. government. We – the public, the analysts and experts, and the policymakers – still do not know the true impact or humanitarian cost of drones; the estimates, though well-intended, may provide false assurance that we know the costs and can fairly assess whether to continue drone strikes. Furthermore, where the tracking organizations' estimates significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes, they may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups.

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