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First Leaked Pakistani Report on U.S. Drone War Undermines Claims of Low Civilian Toll

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A leaked Pakistani government report has bolstered claims that civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes are far higher than the Obama administration has been willing to admit. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released figures from the Pakistani government’s own research into casualties from drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Pakistani report investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five operations by NATO between 2006 and 2009. It finds that the attacks left at least 746 people dead, including at least 147 civilians, 94 of them children — a conservative count given the omission of key data. The high number of civilian casualties directly contradicts statements made by senior Obama administration officials and top lawmakers. We go London to speak with Chris Woods, a reporter with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s drones investigation team, which won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism last month.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A leaked Pakistani government report has bolstered claims civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes are far higher than the Obama administration has been willing to admit. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released figures from the Pakistani government’s own research into casualties from drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Pakistani report investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO between 2006 and 2009. It finds the attacks left at least 746 people dead, including at least 147 civilians, 94 of them children. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says the figures are likely too low: A previous study based largely on media reports found the number of drone-related civilian casualties in Pakistan ranges between 411 and 890.

The high number of civilian casualties directly contradicts statements made by senior Obama administration officials and top lawmakers. During CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation hearing earlier this year, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein said the number of civilians killed in drone strikes has been very small.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I have also been attempting to speak publicly about the very low number of civilian casualties that result from such strikes. I have been limited in my ability to do so. But for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government’s conduct of targeted strikes, and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.

AMY GOODMAN: Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein speaking during the confirmation hearing for CIA Director John Brennan earlier this year.

Well, to discuss the newly released numbers, we go to London to Chris Woods, award-winning reporter working with the drones investigation team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which released the report. The Bureau’s drone team was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism last month.

I don’t know, but we may be the only news organization in the United States who got a studio in London not to talk about the royal baby. I’m not sure. Can you confirm or deny, Chris?

CHRIS WOODS: But I’m very grateful—yeah, I’m really grateful to you for that. It’s a bit of overload on the royal baby here at the moment. No, but thanks for having me on to talk about this.

I think this really important document that the Bureau has been able to obtain and publish, in full, which really does show the inner thinking of Pakistan’s government about what was going on with the CIA drone strikes at one of the most intense periods. And as you say, Amy, the CIA has been claiming—we heard Dianne Feinstein there saying, you know, a tiny number of civilians killed over the entire nine years of CIA bombing in Pakistan. Well, this document says something entirely different. This says at least 147 civilians, perhaps as high as 220, just in a three-year period. This is a lot of civilians killed on the CIA’s watch, and this flatly contradicts the claims by both the agency and by the U.S. administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the most significant findings in this report. I should say we are going to talk about children today, though, but we’ll talk about children in Pakistan.

CHRIS WOODS: I think the most important thing about this—as you know, the work that the Bureau does and people like New American Foundation, the big studies that have taken place in Pakistan, they’re often driven by media reports. What’s really interesting to me about this document, which was never meant to be published, is that it’s driven from the inside. This is from the villages upwards. This is put together by civilian officials in the tribal areas who pull together information from the towns, from the villages, and feed that back up. They’re not interested in political grandstanding; they’re simply saying who got killed, what got destroyed, what the—how many were injured, and so on. And all of that information is then collated. So what we’ve seen emerge here is a completely parallel and independent tracking of civilian deaths in Pakistan in the U.S. drone strikes, which pretty closely match where the numbers seem to be falling now, which is in this 400 to 600, 700 civilian deaths over the entire period of the CIA’s bombing. So I think that it really is an important document—first big document to emerge either from the U.S. or the Pakistan government that’s out there in its entirety now.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, we spoke to Jonathan Landay, the senior national security and intelligence reporter from McClatchy Newspapers, and we asked him to talk about the recent documents he had obtained about drone strikes in Pakistan.

JONATHAN LANDAY: What these documents showed was that in many cases the CIA actually wasn’t sure or didn’t know who they were targeting. They were targeting unknown, quote-unquote, “militants.” They were going after, quote-unquote, “other militants,” foreign extremists. But it was quite evident from their own estimates of the number of casualties that were being caused in these drone strikes that hundreds of people who they suspected of being militants were being killed in these drone strikes. And the documents that I concentrated on showed most—charted most of the drone strikes in the tribal areas over a period of a year that stretched from September of 2010 to September of 2011, which was the height of the drone strikes. And, you know, almost a quarter, I believe—and I’m reaching back now—of those drone strikes were targeted against non-al-Qaeda groups. And so, it showed that, as I said, that the administration had been not telling or fully disclosing who it was who was targeted, who were being targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: Respond to that, Chris Woods.

CHRIS WOODS: I think Jonathan’s report was absolutely outstanding last month. And then, if you like, this Pakistan document is the opposite side of that same coin. You know, Jonathan is saying, “Who were these mystery people that the CIA was killing? It didn’t know who they were.” Well, even into 2010, 2011, the Bureau’s work and the work of others has shown consistently that a lot of those people that the CIA was classified—classifying as unknown militants were civilians, a lot of them military-aged males, but they were civilians by everybody’s definition, but many of them—many of them—women and children, particularly in the earlier stages of the campaign.

It’s a real shame that Jonathan hasn’t been able to yet publish in full the leaked documents that he was able to obtain. We’re very, very keen to be able to cross-reference that material against the findings of the Bureau and others out there in the field, but I think that’s something we’re going to have to wait on in the present climate in the U.S., this concern around leaked documents and so on.

But, yeah, the two documents are the opposite sides of the same coin. On the one hand, you have CIA saying, “Well, we’re killing militants. We don’t know who they are.” On the other hand, the Pakistan government is secretly saying, “Oh, they’re killing a lot of civilians.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about what the Pakistani government report does not say, Chris.

CHRIS WOODS: There are some really interesting omissions. So, there are some strikes that are just missing. So, for some reason, all of 2007 is missing. There were only four or five strikes that year. It’s not a significant number, but it’s a strange omission. They only start in 2006, so the very small number of strikes in 2004 and '05 are missing. Fascinatingly, there is no naming of individuals, whether civilian or militant. And some very big-name militant leaders were killed in some of these strikes. For example, Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban, who was killed back in August 2009, you read the entry in this Pakistan document, which you can find online on the Bureau's website, by the way—we published it in full there—no reference at all to the fact that one of the most dangerous men in Pakistan at that time, an existential threat to the people of Pakistan, had been killed. It just says, “One woman killed, one man killed,” and it leaves it at that. It’s a very strange document, from that point of view.

Also missing—and this is where I think it gets really interesting, is when we get into Obama’s first year, in 2009, civilian deaths disappear from the record. Now, partly that’s because the document ends at the end of that year, and some of these investigations were clearly still ongoing. But we found examples where we know the civilian administration of the tribal areas in Pakistan knew that civilians had died. In fact, there are documents showing that. But somehow and for some reason, those records of civilian deaths under Obama just slide away from the record. So they’re just not there for 2009, and we don’t really have a good explanation as to why that is.

So, some really curious omissions, but otherwise, you know, I think a very important document. And it just adds to this growing canon of publicly available evidence that says, “You know what? This claim that CIA killed 50 to 60 civilians in Pakistan, it just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t add up at all.” And really, all of the questioning needs, in my view, to be focusing back on CIA right now. They are the holders of the key information that we need to be hearing: Who did they kill? When did they kill them? Why did they kill them? And these are the answers I think we really need now.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, could you talk about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s continuous work on drones—you just won one of the leading journalism prizes, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, for that work—and why you focused on drones?

CHRIS WOODS: I mean, it’s an extraordinary commitment from the Bureau. And, as you know, Amy, the Bureau is a not-for-profit based here in London. It doesn’t have a great deal of resources, but it’s committed a significant chunk of its resources and time over the last two-and-a-half years now to focus on this question of U.S. drone strikes.

We don’t have an agenda, other than to try and bring some kind of transparency and accountability. The more we look at this story, the more we uncover, the more the claims of the U.S. and Pakistan governments are really shown wanting. You know, it’s only a few weeks ago that John Brennan was standing in front of the Senate and saying that people making claims of high civilian deaths in Pakistan were deliberate falsehoods, lies. Now, how many leaked documents, how many field investigations have to take place consistently showing far higher civilian deaths in places like Pakistan for the claims of John Brennan himself to start getting taken on?

You know, the Bureau, I’m sure, is going to be continuing on this for a long time to come. There’s a lot more that still needs to be uncovered about this war, this secret war. And, of course, it’s an expanding war, as we know. It’s in Yemen, in Somalia, and probably going to be going to other countries now, as well. Unless we understand who really gets killed and, you know, how a civilian is really defined by the CIA, which I suspect is a very different definition from one you or I would ever accept—until we understand that key stuff, how can we talk about the efficiency, the accuracy of this drone war, this secret drone war? I don’t think we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, let’s turn to comments that CIA Director John Brennan made during his confirmation hearing earlier this year. The hearing had to be temporarily halted following repeated interruptions by protesters. Members of CodePink began standing up one by one to condemn Brennan’s role in the drone war. He addressed the protesters as he defended the drone program.

JOHN BRENNAN: I think there is a misimpression on the part of some American people, who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat. So, we need to make sure that there is understanding, and the people that were standing up here today, I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths. And as the chairman said earlier, the need to be able to go out and say that publicly and openly, I think, is critically important, because people are reacting to a lot of falsehoods that are out there.

AMY GOODMAN: That was CIA, well, nominee, director nominee, John Brennan, during his confirmation hearing. He’s been confirmed. Chris Woods, your response to what he said?

CHRIS WOODS: And there you have that phrase, Amy, “falsehoods, lies,” that the organizations like ours, credible researchers, academics, lawyers, all the people who are trying to do a good job understanding out there—we’re lying? Really, the evidence just shows quite the opposite. Brennan has since said, by the way, that such claims of high civilian deaths are a deliberate misrepresentation. That was an interview he gave to GQ very recently.

But it’s not just Brennan who’s doing this. Dianne Feinstein, in the clip that you played earlier, said, you know, the Senate Intelligence Committee had gone to great lengths to get to the bottom of this question of high civilian deaths, claims of high civilian deaths in Pakistan. Well, I did some follow-up on that. I got got in touch with every single organization that had conducted significant field investigations in Pakistan into civilian deaths, regardless of the outcome. Every single organization came back to me with the same answer: “We have never been contacted by any member of any congressional oversight committee, intelligence oversight committee, of either House of Congress or their staffers.” This idea that there’s oversight, this idea that Congress is doing its job, is looking into claims and counterclaims around civilian deaths, just doesn’t stack up. They’re going to CIA and saying, “Show us your videos. Tell us what you did.” And then they’re making an assumption based on that. There’s no independent investigating going on here. And there’s no reaching outside the U.S. intelligence community. And I think until both Congress and the agency itself start to address some of these public concerns, I think we’re going to have this huge gulf, this growing gulf, between public perception of what the drone war is about and this claim by the U.S. government that “It’s fine. It only kills terrorists. And you know what? We don’t ever kill any civilians. Or if we do, it’s a tiny number.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by making a point about whistleblowers, because at the same time you have this increased secrecy, you have the Obama administration cracking down on whistleblowers. Speaking in May, President Obama said he makes no apologies for seeking to crack down on leaks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama. Chris Woods, can you talk about leaks? You’re in London, not that far from where Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy. Though he’s gotten political asylum in Ecuador, he can’t step foot outside, or he’ll be arrested by the British government. Certainly has released a great deal of U.S. government documents around bombings, killings and drone strikes. And then, of course, there’s Edward Snowden, holed up in the Russian airport, who is being threatened with very serious prosecution if the United States gets its hands on him. And Bradley Manning, who’s on trial now at Fort Meade in Maryland, who also released government documents around the killing of civilians.

CHRIS WOODS: I do think there is a real risk of the executive exerting, in effect, a tyranny over the media. If you have a situation where U.S. journalists are having to think about stepping outside the United States in order to leak documents, or not even leaking them—we discussed Jonathan’s situation earlier. You know, those documents haven’t been put out there in the public domain. Why? I think because, like many news organizations in the U.S., they are terrified of the wrath of the Department of Justice. Leaked documents, leaked material, so long as they don’t compromise national intelligence, are of vital, vital importance to a healthy democracy, because they prevent politicians and government agencies from hiding behind fabrications and lies. And they do that. That’s the world that we live in.

And, you know, the Snowden documents, they’re uncomfortable for the United States and problematic. I get that. But, you know, out here in the wider world, the uproar about this revelation that the NSA spies on literally everyone is extraordinary. And as I’m sure you know, Amy, huge engagement from governments in Europe here, and possibly action by the European Union against the United States and about technology companies based in the U.S. for allowing these these kind of backdoor accesses and so on. So, I mean, do we really want a situation where journalists in the United States are afraid to publish leaks, which are of vital importance to the health of the body politic? Because that really seems to be where we’re heading right now. I think that’s a very, very worrying situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Woods, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning reporter working with the drones investigation team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. When we come back, we’re going to stay in Britain. And, yes, you know if we say, “It’s a boy,” what we mean, if you watched any television yesterday—the blanket coverage of the royal baby. We’re going to talk with Laurie Penny, though, about the babies we don’t care about today. Stay with us.

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