A pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Barack Obama's government said on Friday it inadvertently killed up to 116 civilians in strikes in countries where America is not at war, a major disclosure likely to inflame debate about targeted killings and use of drones.
Obama's goal for the release of the numbers, which are higher than any previously acknowledged by his government but vastly below private estimates, is to create greater transparency about what the US military and CIA are doing to fight militants plotting against the United States.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday that the disclosure represented real progress.
"The president believes that our counter-terrorism strategy is more effective and has more credibility when we're as transparent as possible," said Earnest.
"But the fact is these operations that will be the substance of an announcement later today are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn't even confirm existed," he continued.
Non-governmental organizations estimate that hundreds of civilians were killed in such strikes, many of them by drones, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The US government pegged NGO estimates of non-combatant deaths during its period of study, from Jan. 20, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2015, from more than 200 to more than 900.
Obama's administration acknowledged "inherent limitations" in its ability to collect data in dangerous target areas but strongly defended its estimates.
It also cautioned that NGO figures could be flawed, citing "deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors,' including terrorist organizations, in local media reports on which some non-governmental estimates rely."
Drone advocates, including those within the US military, argue the strikes are an essential part of reducing the ability of militant groups to plot attacks against the United States. They say the government goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
Earnest called the use of drones a "powerful tool" that helps keep Americans safe, but said the administration wanted it to be more thoroughly regulated.
"The President believes that it is important to establish a structure to guide how that tool is used not just for the remainder of this administration but into the next one. And also to establish a regular mechanism for bringing some transparency to those efforts," he said.
Critics of the targeted killing program question whether the strikes create more militants than they destroy. They cite the spread of jihadist organizations and militant attacks throughout the world as evidence that targeted killings may be exacerbating the problem.