What the New Drone Report Does and Doesn’t Say

I wrote last week about the worthwhile new Stanford/NYU study on the civilian impact of the drone war in Pakistan. Today brought the release of another new study of the drone war, this one conducted by the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights clinic. (I’ll refer to these as the “Stanford” and “Columbia” studies respectively for ease of reference.) This study is similarly worth reading, and its authors provide still more reasons to be skeptical of the Obama administration’s rosy claims about the civilian toll of drone attacks.

However, for reasons that seem mostly to do with the Internet punditocracy’s thirst for novelty and contrarianism, the Columbia study is being held up as if it refuted the pessimistic take of the Stanford study. Thus Wired‘s Noah Shachtman suggests that whereas the Stanford study claims that drones are “covered in children’s blood,” the Columbia study provides a more “nuanced view” that “doesn’t fit neatly into the dominant narratives about the drone campaign, pro or con.” The main piece of evidence for this claim is that the Columbia team stresses the impossibility of knowing how many people have been killed by drones.

Of course, as the reader may have guessed, the claim that drones are “covered in children’s blood” appears nowhere in the Stanford report; it’s Shactman’s hyperbolic gloss on the report’s conclusion (following the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) that 176 Pakistani children have been killed by drone strikes. (Since we can reliably assume that children are civilians, but can’t always do so for adults, it’s easier to accurately assess the number of children killed than civilians as a whole.) However, the Stanford study is keen to stress the unreliability of all the available data, since it comes primarily from US and Pakistani government sources with incentives to fudge the body count. The study explains why the Bureau of Investigative Journalism numbers — which show a significantly higher civilian death toll — are more reliable than those provided by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal: while all three sources are reliant on government reports, the Bureau is the only one that attempts to supplement these with on-the-ground follow-up investigations. But they certainly make no claims that their numbers are completely exact or sacrosanct; what’s important is that whatever the precise toll, it’s far higher than the Obama administration is claiming.

The Columbia report makes no attempt to delve into the numbers and come at an estimated death toll, but it similarly examines all the factors which suggest that the official civilian body counts may be grossly understated. It also, like the Stanford report, takes note of all the ways that drones negatively impact even those civilians who aren’t killed or injured by strikes — for instance, the devastating impact on the mental health of residents (particularly children) who hear drones hovering above them at all hours of the day and never know if and when they will be hit. On the basic question of whether drones have been as precise and miraculous as advertised, or whether on the contrary they enact a high price upon the lives of civilians, the two studies are completely in agreement.

The way that the Columbia study is being spun seems to reflect the baleful influence of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand Beltway centrism: government officials say that drones have no civilian toll, outside groups say that they have a high one, so the answer must lie somewhere in the middle. This kind of empty “moderation” is no more useful in navigating the drone war than it is anywhere else.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.