April 2015, Open Society Justice Initiative: Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen (PDF)
APRIL 13, 2015
Drone Strikes in Yemen Said to Set a Dangerous Precedent
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON -- An investigation of American drone strikes in Yemen concludes that the Obama administration has not followed its own rules to avoid civilian casualties and is setting a dangerous example for other countries that want to use unmanned aircraft against terrorists.
The study,  by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy group based in New York, was released on Monday at a time when Yemen has been engulfed in violence and American drone strikes have been slowed or halted. But its observations about the performance of American counterterrorism strikes from 2012 to 2014 remain relevant for assessing a novel weapons system that the United States has used in several countries and has now approved for export to a limited number of allies.
Despite promises of greater openness about drone strikes, the Obama administration has continued to guard their secrecy closely and says nothing publicly about strike targets and results. The resulting information vacuum has been partly filled by independent studies by groups like the Open Society Justice Initiative, which worked with the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, a Yemeni group that interviewed witnesses.
In May 2013, in a long-planned speech on the targeted killing of terrorists,  President Obama described a rigorous standard that he said guided all drone strikes. "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set," he said.
Mr. Obama said that some civilian casualties were unavoidable, adding, "For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live."
But the new report questions how careful the strikes have been, based on the analysis of nine strikes in Yemen, where strikes are carried out by both the C.I.A. and the military's Joint Special Operations Command. Each of those strikes killed civilians, the study found, with a total of 26 civilians killed, including five children, and 13 others injured.
"We've found evidence that President Obama's standard is not being met on the ground," said Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative and a primary author of the report. "There's a real question about whether the near-certainty standard is being applied in practice."
Asked about the report's findings, a National Security Council spokesman, Ned Price, said that he was "not in a position to comment on specific cases" because of secrecy rules, but that the standard Mr. Obama described in 2013 was still in place.
"In those rare instances in which it appears noncombatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why," he said, adding that condolence payments were sometimes given to those injured and families of those killed.
Mr. Price said administration officials "continue to work diligently toward" the goal of greater transparency. The military announced strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as recent strikes in Somalia, but no information has been released on strikes in Pakistan or Yemen.
The Open Society report also questions whether the administration is acting on its stated policy of always capturing terrorists when "feasible" rather than killing them. In two of the strikes it studied, the researchers quoted witnesses as saying the targeted individuals, who had been identified by American intelligence as members of Al Qaeda, could easily have been arrested by the Yemeni authorities.
An American official, speaking about the classified operations on the condition of anonymity, said that in some cases a foreign government "only has the most tenuous reach into parts of its territory" and that capture operations "would pose profound risks to our forces." But the official noted that foreign partners often capture and imprison terrorism suspects based on American intelligence.
Drones loaded with Hellfire missiles and other munitions were first used by the United States in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and became an integral part of the American wars there and in Iraq. There were sporadic strikes against militants in Pakistan until mid-2008, when President George W. Bush sharply escalated the drone campaign there.
Mr. Obama stepped up strikes in Pakistan further and expanded them to Yemen and Somalia early in his presidency. The pace of strikes has slowed, however, and is well below the peak in 2010 in Pakistan and 2012 in Yemen.
Advocates of drone strikes argue that they are particularly suited for pursuing small groups of terrorists and that they kill far fewer civilians than conventional airstrikes or ground troops. American officials often assert that accounts of civilian deaths by independent groups are exaggerated, but they rarely give their own account of who was killed.
"This program has no public disclosure about who's being killed and why, and there's no public accountability," Ms. Singh, the report's author, said. "If you insulate a program with secrecy, you prevent information that could correct it from coming to light."
In the most recent strike  analyzed by the Open Society report, in April 2014, two drones fired on a Toyota Land Cruiser outside the town of Bayda. The report concludes that the men in the Land Cruiser, all of whom were killed, were indeed Qaeda fighters.
But shrapnel from the strike hit 12 laborers in a Toyota Hilux just ahead of the Land Cruiser. Four of them were killed and five more injured, the report found, based on interviews with survivors. Based on negotiations between tribal leaders and the Yemeni government, the government paid about $55,000 in compensation and 30 Kalashnikov rifles, costs that Yemeni officials have said are generally covered by the United States.
Another strike in the same province in September 2012, the report found, killed 12 people and injured two others as they rode a truck home after selling their wares in a town market. The victims included a pregnant woman and her 10-year-old daughter, as well as 15- and 17-year-old boys. The researchers found no evidence of Qaeda connections among those killed. Local news reports said the intended target was a local Qaeda leader who was not present.
Again, the government compensated the affected families with cash and weapons. But the fear of strikes from the drones that regularly patrolled the skies lingered. "We live in constant fear," the report quoted an anonymous survivor as saying. "There is no assurance that we would not be the next targets." The brother of one of those killed was quoted as declaring, "The U.S. government should come to the region to see what targets it has hit."
Ms. Singh said, "The voices of these individuals have not been heard by the U.S. government, because no one is going over to Yemen and asking what happened."
The C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, said at his confirmation hearing in 2013 that he believed that the United States should publicly acknowledge unintended civilian deaths in counterterrorism strikes. But it has never happened.
For years, arms experts have been concerned about the example set by the United States for other countries as armed drones proliferate. Drones have been used to fire missiles by Israel and Britain as well as by the United States, but many other countries are seeking to develop or buy them.
In February, in response to pressure from arms manufacturers and many countries, the Obama administration announced rules governing the export of armed drones. A State Department fact sheet  said the rules required "all sales and transfers to include agreement to principles for proper use."