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Defense Dept. answers ACLU, says it doesn’t track civilians killed in drone strikes

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a letter it received from the Department of Defense confirming that it does not compile statistics on the total number of civilians that have been killed by U.S. unmanned drone aircrafts since September 2001.

Responding to the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request of “records relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly known as ‘drones’ – for the purpose of targeting and killing individuals since September 11, 2001,” which was submitted July 2010, the Department of Defense told Jonathan Manes of the ACLU’s National Security Project that while this department does possess documents estimating the number of civilian casualties that result from operations involving military aircraft, it does not distinguish between weapons platforms.

“The only documents that address estimates of civilian casualties related to drone strikes are individual battle damage assessments evaluating each military aircraft mission, which the ACLU and DoD have agreed are outside the scope of documents to be processed in this litigation,” writes Mark H. Herrington, the DoD’s associate deputy general counsel.

The letter is dated Dec. 30, 2010, but ACLU spokesperson Molly Kaplan said the department held on to the letter for months, “apparently by mistake,” and it did not make it to the ACLU’s desk until last Friday.

Herrington further writes:

“In July 2010, the Department of Defense (DoD) informed the ACLU that all records related to this section of the request are classified and not maintained in a format that allows searching without significant cost. However, in light of ACLU’s insistence that civilian casualty information was of particular interest, DoD agreed to conduct 40 hours of searching for estimates of civilian casualties caused by such strikes, after which the parties would discuss whether additional searches would be undertaken.

DoD’s search confirmed that DoD does not create or maintain documents to compile estimates of civilian casualties related to drone strikes separately from estimates related to other weapons systems.”

Last year the civil liberties organization sued DoD after it would not fill its FOIA request on unmanned drones used to target killings overseas. The ACLU wanted to know when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, as well as the number and rate of civilian casualties. Generally, the ACLU wanted the government to clarify the legal basis for using unmanned drones.

“It is remarkable that the Defense Department does not compile data about the total number of civilian casualties inflicted by unmanned drones – a new and controversial technology,” said Manes in a press statement. “The public must have accurate information about civilian casualties in drone strikes in order to assess the ethical, legal and strategic concerns that these weapons raise.”

According to the ACLU, the CIA, for its part, has entirely refused to respond to a request for information about the drone strikes in Pakistan.

Because the government has not been much help coming forward with this information, independent organizations and other media have attempted to pick up the slack. Last October, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) released a report that concluded that innocent civilians in northwest Pakistan were being killed by both U.S. drone strikes and the ground and aerial attacks from the Pakistani military, as well as local militants.

The report found that in 2009, an estimated 2,300 civilians were killed in terror attacks alone and noted that “there is no governmental or military mechanism that systematically and publicly investigates or collects data on civilian casualties.” The group also discovered that the Pakistani government runs several compensation programs and suggested that drone victims be included in one of these programs.

On Thursday, CIVIC released a statement calling on the DoD and the CIA to “count and compensate civilians harmed by U.S. drones,” in light of the ACLU’s reveal.

“The US has a duty to know where it has caused civilian harm, including whether it was caused by close air support or unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Sarah Holewinski, CIVIC’s executive director, in the statement. “Let’s say civilian casualties skyrocket. Why the spike? How can the problem be fixed? Without good data, the US is operating with blinders on. After ten years at war, the US should know better.”

The New America Foundation is another organization that has attempted to quantify the civilian casualties of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, compiling data and information since 2004 from sources such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and the BBC and English-language newspapers and media in Pakistan, such as The Daily Times, Dawn, The Express Tribune and Geo TV.

Thus far, NAF has found that the 233 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan — including 20 in 2011 – have killed between 1,411 and 2,247 people, of whom about 1,134 to 1,810 have been described as militants. According to the organization: “The true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 21 percent. In 2010, it was more like six percent.”

NAF has also created a map with estimated locations of each drone strike.

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