Obama Admin: Only One Civilian Killed by U.S. Outside of War Zones in 2016

On the eve of the inauguration of a new president, the Director of National Intelligence released a report (full text) that summarizes the number of military strikes taken by the US government outside of hot battlefields during 2016, including the total number of civilians killed in those operations. For example, the US operations in the report occurred in places like Somalia and Yemen. The report is the second in a series that are mandated by a July 1, 2016 Executive Order. One thing to always keep in mind when digesting these reports: they cover only strikes “outside of areas of active hostilities”–in other words, they exclude places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. One has to turn to regular Department of Defense updates for information about civilian casualties in those war zones.

There are three significant items in the report:

1. In all of 2016 there was only 1 non-combatant death (and 431-441 combatant deaths) out of a total of 53 strikes, according to the government.

2. That figure — 1 non-combatant death — does not differ from NGO reports, according to the DNI release. The DNI states: “No discrepancies were identified between post-strike assessments from the U.S. Government and credible reporting from non-governmental organizations regarding non-combatant deaths resulting from these strikes.”

That statement differs sharply with the prior report which covered the period between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015. In that report, the DNI stated: “the U.S. Government acknowledges that there are differences between U.S. Government assessments and reporting from non-governmental organizations,” and referred to the fact that “non-governmental organizations’ estimates range from more than 200 to slightly more than 900 possible non-combatant deaths outside areas of active hostilities.” Those figures were higher than the upper bound in the first DNI report, which said the US found 64-116 non-combatant deaths.

3. The report does not include any parts of Libya as a current area of active hostilities. The DNI states: “‘Areas of active hostilities’ currently include Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.” That suggests the administration has recently taken Libya off that list.

As recently as November 28, 2016, the General Counsel for the Department of Defense in a speech at NYU Law School, stated, referred to ““outside areas of active hostilities – meaning not in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or certain parts of Libya” (emphasis added). Similarly, the White House’s  Use of Force Framework Report released on December 6, 2016 states: “Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and certain portions of Libya are currently designated as ‘areas of active hostilities.’” Accordingly, I presume that the statistics for 2016 do not include parts of Libya when those places were deemed areas of active hostilities. In other words, we would not get information about number of strikes and civilian casualties when a place like Sirte was deemed to be an active warzone–at least not from this report. (Another implication is that US lethal operations in Libya are now subject to heightened constraints which currently apply only to areas outside of active hostilities under the President’s Policy Guidance of 2013.)

Will the Trump administration find similar reasons to continue this kind of reporting? General James Mattis, for his department’s part, shows a propensity to continue such efforts. At least he understands the importance of maintaining public legitimacy for US military operations under certain conditions, as evidenced in part by his co-authorship of the famed counterinsurgency manual with General David Petraeus. Also Mattis’s answers to questions from Senators during his nomination hearings displayed a keen sense of the importance of minimizing civilian casualties. The Executive Branch civilian casualty reports help apply some internal pressure to keep those numbers low through the mechanism of accountability. The Executive Order’s reporting process also provides a systematic method for engaging the public understanding of civilian casualties that is otherwise ceded to NGOs in this space.  

[Editor’s Note: Interested in reading more on this topic? Check out Sarah Knuckey’s “The Good and Bad in the US Government’s Civilian Casualties Announcement”]

Image: U.S. Department of Defense 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.