Analysis: Drone project praised by US academic study

Tribal areas in Pakistan where CIA drones roam. 

A nine-month investigation by two leading US universities into CIA drone strikes in Pakistan has concluded that the Bureau’s Covert War investigation is ‘the best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes’.

The 165-page study, Living Under Drones, produced by Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic concludes that the Bureau’s ‘dynamic database’ together with its ‘own investigations, makes its data far more reliable than other aggregating sources.’

The extensive report looks at key aspects of the CIA’s drone programme and concludes, in line with many of the Bureau’s own findings, that the ‘dominant narrative’ in the US – that the surgical precision of drones means they are operated in Pakistan with ‘minimal downsides or collateral impacts’ – is ‘false’.

Part of the report’s analysis is a thorough assessment of the three available sources of data on the CIA drone strikes – the Bureau, the Long War Journal (LWJ) and the New America Foundation(NAF).

The report states that all three sources of data fulfill ‘an important public transparency role’ and that given the US government’s failure to provide ‘even basic facts about the strikes’ the data available ‘has been invaluable in public debates about drone and targeted killings policies.’

But while the report recognises that all three databases are susceptible to bias because of reporting restrictions in the tribal areas, it concludes that the Bureau’s data was ‘more thorough and comprehensive’ than both that produced by the LWJ and NAF.

Related article: ‘Drones causing mass trauma among civilians,’ major study finds

The report praises the Bureau’s work for its ‘highly transparent’ data sources and its ‘thorough’ investigations.

It also points to the field researchers used by the Bureau saying, ‘The use of these corroborating sources to supplement data drawn from press accounts sets the Bureau of Investigative Journalism apart from both The Long War Journal and New America Foundation.’ And it recognises the importance of frequent updates to the data as new evidence becomes available.

In contrast LWJ and NAF are criticised for their poor sourcing of strikes and for their insistence on defining those killed as ‘militants’, even when their source materials often say no such thing

The report’s analysis of the other two datasets leads it to question the accuracy of their figures on civilian deaths.

It criticises LWJ for not making its data visible. It also suggests that LWJ’s ‘practice of labelling all drone victims as “Taliban/Al Qaeda” unless they are specifically identified as civilians’ is problematic as is its ‘reliance on demonstrably untrustworthy government reports corroborated by comments from anonymous US intelligence sources.’

Turning to NAF, the report says its strike details ‘do not appear to be updated regularly’ and that it fails to ‘incorporate a number of credible (and in some cases, high-profile) reports of civilian casualties.’

The report also questions the conclusions reached by NAF’s editors, Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland, based on analysis of their own data, a problem highlighted previously by the Bureau.

In particular it says: ‘New America Foundation’s finding of no civilians killed in 2012 is also troubling given that “reputable news sources” have suggested the possibility of civilian casualties in six of the 27 strikes that inform New America Foundation’s 2012 statistics. Those sources include Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The News, and Dawn, all of which New America Foundation has found reliable on other occasions when they reported only “militant” casualties.’

And it notes that the Bureau links to 344 unique sources for the first 27 strikes of 2012. In contrast NAF links to 107.

In conclusion, the two universities find that the Bureau’s work and data is ‘far more dependable’ than the other two American offerings. And throughout its analysis of drone strikes in Pakistan, the report draws frequently on the Bureau’s work.

For all our work on drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia click here.