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State Department Concludes Review of NGO Drone Strike Reports, Offers Public Response (Sort of)

The U.S. Department of State told reporters late last week that it had concluded its review of the Amnesty International and HRW targeted killing and drone strike reports.  The government’s new statement, however, adds little to its earlier public responses to the reports.  It is a broad denial, and a flat-out refusal to engage specific allegations. And if it is the totality of what the government intends to say publicly about the reports, it does not come close to approaching a satisfactory response to serious and detailed allegations of civilian deaths and legal violations.

Four weeks ago, on the day the two reports were released, a Department of State spokesperson gave a brief response, largely answering journalists’ questions by stating (quite understandably) that the reports were still being reviewed.  The spokesperson, in response to questions, did give two substantive, if general, responses at the time: (a) On civilian casualties: the government takes “every effort” to limit civilian deaths and injuries, and there is a “wide gap” between non-governmental and U.S. government assessment of numbers; (b) On legal compliance issues: the U.S. “always” acts in accordance with international law.

However, most of the spokesperson’s responses to questions were that the government was “still reviewing” the reports.  She also stated a number of times that this “isn’t the entirety of our response.”

It appears so far, however, that – at least publicly – the initial reaction was the entirety of the government’s response.

On November 14, a Department of State spokesperson told journalists that the government had now “concluded” its review.  She then repeated the earlier response that the U.S. has not acted contrary to international law, and, when asked, said the government’s earlier stated position on the gap between non-governmental and government civilian casualty estimates had not changed.  She stated that the government gathers a lot of data to determine whether civilians were killed or injured.  (Though the government has, to date, seemed largely uninterested in speaking directly with alleged victims and witnesses).  When pressed, the government spokesperson stated that she didn’t have “anything more” and she refused to answer questions about the government’s own civilian casualty numbers, stating “we never discuss those.”

That was it.  Largely a repeat of the earlier response.  And similar to the now very familiar stock answer provided repeatedly this year to journalists asking questions about specific strikes.

I’ve extracted the relevant parts of the questioning below:

QUESTION: […] I’m sure I’m not going to get a satisfactory answer, but maybe you’ll surprise me. So since we’ve been gone, how’s that review of the Amnesty drone report going? (Laughter.)

MS. PSAKI: We have reviewed these reports. That review has concluded, Matt.

QUESTION: It has? Okay.

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: And?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have much to read out for you, other than to convey that we take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law, and that they are consistent with U.S. values and policy.

To the extent that these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. We remain – we have repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law. And when there are indications that civilian deaths may have occurred, intelligence analysts draw on a large body of information, including human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage to help us make informed determinations about whether civilians were, in fact, killed or injured. Substantial information concerning U.S. counterterrorism strikes is collected, obviously, through a variety of methods, as I just mentioned.

But beyond that, as you know, as we’ve talked about a bit, the President gave a speech, we continue to take every step possible, and we’ve completed our review of the report.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, that sounds like your – the initial review the day after it came out, you – there was quibbles with two – or more than quibbles; there were disagreements with two aspects. One is the one that you just mentioned, acting in violation of international law. The other one was that you said that the casualty counts were inflated – their casualty counts – and that you had better information than the eyewitnesses who were on the ground, so is —

MS. PSAKI: Well, I just outlined the steps that we take.

QUESTION: Are you – do you still hold the position that their casualty figures are too high?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we haven’t – that position hasn’t changed from the one we outlined earlier.

QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, the review that has now been concluded after almost, what, three weeks or so – well, two and a half, three weeks – the full review has come to the same conclusion as your cursory snap review that you did a day after the report. Is that right?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more about our review to read out to all of you.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Do you —

QUESTION: I have one more unrelated question.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: Do you contend, though, that there were no civilians who were killed in these attacks?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to outline numbers or specifics on that front.

QUESTION: So you contend there were some civilians?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you on numbers. We never discuss those.

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About the Author

is associate clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School, director of the Human Rights Clinic, co-director of the Human Rights Institute, and a Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).