At a press conference today, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the administration's "counterterrorism operations" (i.e. drone strikes that routinely kill civilians—including four U.S. citizens—that officials are reluctant to directly acknowledge) are "precise, they are lawful and they are effective." But two reports released today by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch show that the drone strikes are anything but precise: as many as 900 civilians were killed in roughly 350 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and last month, while 57 of the 82 people killed in drone strikes in Yemen in the past two years were civilians.
“The drones are like the angels of death,” a shopkeeper living in "The Drone Strike Capital of the World," Miram Shah Pakistan, told the Times. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”
Amnesty International's report focuses on strikes in Pakistan:
In October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in front of her grandchildren while gathering vegetables in her family’s large, vacant fields. She was blasted into pieces by a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. A year has passed but the US government has not acknowledged Mamana Bibi’s death, let alone provided justice or compensation for it.
Human Rights Watch's report details strikes in Yemen:
On September 2, 2012, a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying 14 people was attacked by a warplane or drone near the provincial city of Radaa in central Yemen. The strike by a missile or a bomb killed 12 passengers, including three children and a pregnant woman. A thirteenth passenger and the driver were severely burned but survived.
Yet another report, released by a UN human rights investigator on Friday, noted that around 2,200 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan over the last decade—400 of them were civilians, and 200 were "probable noncombatans."
President Obama will meet with Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, at the White House on Friday, while U.S. drones will be debated on the floor of the UN at the same time. The number of recorded US drone strikes has dropped from its peak of 117 in 2010.
Here's what the president said about drone strikes and civilian casualties in a speech last May:
Much of the criticism about drone strikes — both here at home and abroad — understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.
In response to questions about the reports today, Carney echoed the president's assurance that there is a "standard of near certainty that no civilian will be killed or injured" when the strikes are planned and executed.