- Chris Woodsaward-winning reporter with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. He leads the Bureau’s drones investigation team.
A new report from a team of British and Pakistani journalists finds one U.S. drone strike occurs every four days in Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed as many as 775 civilians, including 168 children, since 2004. The report also challenges a recent claim by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that no civilians have been killed in the drone attacks for nearly a year. According to the Bureau’s researchers, at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 U.S. attacks during the last year. We speak with Chris Woods, an award-winning reporter who leads the drones investigation team for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: A new report from a team of British and Pakistani journalists finds one U.S. drone strike occurs every four days in Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed as many as 775 civilians, including 168 children. Overall, the Bureau reports some 2,292 people have died in the drone attacks since 2004. As many as 69 children were killed in the bombing of an Islamic school in 2006. The report also challenges a recent claim by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that no civilians have been killed in the drone attacks for nearly a year.
JOHN BRENNAN: One of the things that President Obama has been consistent on is that we’re exceptionally precise and surgical in terms of addressing the terrorist threat. And by that, I mean, if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger. In fact, I can say that the types of operations that the U.S. has been involved in, and within the counterterrorism realm, that nearly, for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.
AMY GOODMAN: That was John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser.
According to the Bureau’s researchers, at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 U.S. attacks during the last year. U.S. counterterrorism officials have attacked the Bureau’s findings, disputing its total deaths and saying no civilians have been killed since May of 2011. It says the report is based on unsubstantiated allegations and claim that one of its sources is a Pakistani spy.
To talk more about the findings of the report, we go to London to speak with Chris Woods, an award-winning reporter with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He leads the Bureau’s drones investigation team.
You’ve been doing this study for years, Chris Woods. Talk about what you’ve found and what the top counterterrorism expert in the United States for President Obama, Brennan, said, that there were no civilian deaths this year as a result of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.
CHRIS WOODS: Well, that’s right. It’s about a year’s work for the Bureau. We’ve been looking in great detail at all 292 strikes the CIA has carried out in the last seven years. That’s an exercise we began last summer and have just reported on now. The particular comments that John Brennan made were made on June 15th of this year, where he said that no civilians had died in CIA drone strikes over the last year. And in fact, only this week, they seem to have pushed that back even further and are now suggesting that no civilians have died since May 2010. And certainly, the evidence that we’ve looked at and the exercise that we’ve run, looking at these strikes in great detail, would flatly contradict that.
AMY GOODMAN: Compare May 6th, an attack that you have written about, and how that compares to what has come out in the past.
CHRIS WOODS: I mean, the May 6th attack is an interesting one. We initially reported that as a strike that the reports—there are about 15 contemporary media reports from news organizations such as New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, various reports of deaths. Most of them put the deaths at at least a dozen and up to about 18. We were concerned about that. We had seen reports that said a roadside cafe, a sort of roadside eatery, had been caught up in that strike, which we knew militants had died in. So we engaged researchers on the ground in Waziristan who were able to look at that strike and to find the names of six civilians, who they identified by name for us. Now, that finding has been challenged by U.S. officials. In the New York Times the other day, you see that they’ve sort of mocked our use of the term “restaurant.” In fact, we meant “roadside restaurant.” We were very clear on that. And they said they killed up to 10 militants. We don’t doubt that. But as I mentioned, almost every report of that strike, including our own researchers on the ground, found that far more than 10 had actually died in that attack. And it is our suggestion to the CIA that, “Well, we’ve given you six names of civilians, and we would certainly welcome your comment on that.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is the Bureau’s account of the drone strike: “A strike on a religious school (also suspected of being a militant hide-out) in Datta Khel also hit a nearby roadside restaurant and a house. Many were killed in the attack. Bureau researchers found [that] 18 people [were] killed, including 6 civilians.” And you name them.
Here is the Obama administration’s account of the same drone attack, quote: “The claim that a restaurant was struck is ludicrous. This was a vehicle carrying explosives [and] nearly 10 armed men, which was engaged in a remote area just a couple miles from the Afghanistan border. There’s no question where they or the explosives were headed — let’s remember that the goal here is protect the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans who would otherwise be killed by these militants,” unquote.
Your response, Chris Woods?
CHRIS WOODS: Well, our simple question to the CIA is: who are the missing dead? If almost every news organization, including the New York Times, at the time who reported 15 dead, CNN said there were 12 dead, Washington Post, I think, said there were 14 dead, and our own researchers said that 18 died in that attack—who are the missing dead? If the American drone killed 10 militants, as the American official says, we are simply asking for clarification on those extra people killed. And our researchers were very clear: civilians were caught up in that strike, which did kill militants.
AMY GOODMAN: The also criticism that’s been launched against your research is that one of the lawyers you’re working with, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, works for the ISI, as well, the Pakistani intelligence. Chris Woods, your response?
CHRIS WOODS: I do find that an extraordinary attack. I have met Shahzad Akbar on a few occasions. He seems a very straight-down-the-line man. He’s, I think, the only lawyer in Pakistan trying to bring cases on behalf of civilians killed in CIA drone strikes. And, you know, even the CIA now say they’ve killed 50 civilians in Pakistan. Not a single compensation settlement has ever been made in relation to these drone strikes. And we suspect far more civilians have died. Mr. Akbar is being smeared as a possible agent of Pakistani intelligence. I think that’s unfortunate.
Is Mr. Akbar a major source for us? No, he’s a single source of literally hundreds that we use. And we use him very directly on 10 of 292 strikes now, which are strikes where he’s bringing cases on behalf of families where civilian casualties, he says, occurred. So where we use his information, we make that absolutely clear in our report. Where it’s contradicted by other sources, we make that absolutely clear, as well. So, this lazy smear, really, of the Bureau’s very thorough research process to suggest somehow that we’re tainted by an association with a lawyer who may or may not be a spy, it just seems rather cheap, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Woods, we have less than a minute, but the significance of your findings? I mean that over the last years, you’re talking the average of one in every—one out of every four days there is a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan, what it means for the people of Pakistan?
CHRIS WOODS: I think that’s a complicated question for the people of Pakistan. There are different answers to that depending where you live. I think, for the people of Waziristan, clearly there is a war going on, and clearly militant organizations are conducting terror attacks against Pakistanis, against American forces, against NATO and so on. Where those strikes go wrong, I think it is important that we understand what happens and that we can seek out and gain compensation and aid and recognition for those civilians unfortunately caught up in those strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Woods, I want to thank you very much for being with us, award-winning report with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. We will link to your report on U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.