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CIA claim of zero civilian deaths from drone strikes 'bitterly disputed': NYT

August 12, 2011 - Washington

The civilian casualties from the Central Intelligence Agency's drone campaign, which is widely credited with disrupting Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan's tribal region, has been in bitter dispute since the predator strikes were accelerated in 2008.

Accounts of strike after strike from official and unofficial sources are so at odds that they often seem to describe different events, The New York Times reports.

The debate has intensified since US President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, clearly referring to the classified drone program, said in June that for almost a year, "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop."

Other officials say that extraordinary claim still holds, as CIA officers believe that since May 2010, the drones have killed more than 600 militants, including at least 20 in a strike reported Wednesday, and not a single non-combatant.

The government's assertion of zero collateral deaths meets with deep scepticism from many independent experts, the report said, noting that a new report from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which conducted interviews in Pakistan's tribal area, concluded that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes during the last year.

Others who question the CIA claim include strong supporters of the drone program like Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, who closely tracks the strikes, the report said.

"The Taliban don't go to a military base to build bombs or do training. There are families and neighbours around. I believe the people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties. They could be 20 percent. They could be 5 percent. But I think the C.I.A.'s claim of zero civilian casualties in a year is absurd," Roggio said.

Colonel David M. Sullivan, an Air Force pilot with extensive experience with both traditional and drone airstrikes from Kosovo to Afghanistan, said that while remotely piloted craft offered far greater opportunities to study a target and avoid hitting civilians, there is still a margin of error in drone strikes, even if it is far smaller than in traditional strikes.

"Zero innocent civilians having lost their lives does not sound to me like reality," Colonel Sullivan said. "Never in the history of combat operations has every airborne strike been 100 percent successful."


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