London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a leaked Pakistani report on Monday that details numerous civilian casualties by drone strikes in the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The document provides crucial new data on civilians casualties of U.S. and NATO strikes in Pakistan.
The 12-page dossier was compiled for the the authorities in the tribal areas, the Bureau notes, and investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO in the region conducted between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, 746 people were killed in the strategic attacks. At least 147 of the victims were civilians, and 94 were children.
While a majority of earlier tallies relied on media reports of drone strikes, the FATA list was compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage in the wake of attacks. According to the Bureau, on several occasions officials registered different casualty rates than media outlets reported.
However, the Bureau notes, there are crucial gaps in the investigation. The document does not detail the names of the casualties, nor does it register civilian casualties for 2009. It is unclear why that data is omitted.
Drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have been a controversial part of the Obama administration's anti-terrorism strategies. While the Pakistani document largely deals with strikes conducted under former President George W. Bush, Obama significantly stepped up the number of attacks since taking office.
ProPublica notes the U.S. government denies large civilian casualty counts, but it refuses to release its own numbers. Regardless, the organization explains that even if the administration would release its numbers, it is unlikely they would shed much light on civilian deaths. "That’s because it’s still not clear how the U.S. distinguishes between civilians and 'militants,' or 'combatants,' Sarah Holewinski, head of the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict, told ProPublica.
Last year, the United Nations launched an investigation into the legality of the drone program. According to the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, Pakistan then claimed at least 400 civilians had been killed in U.S. strikes in the country.
In a major speech on national security in May 2013, Obama strongly defended the drone program but said the administration would codify the process it goes through before ordering attacks and would work with Congress to create more oversight.
"Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," Obama said.