U.S. says to release data of casualties from counter-terror strikes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday that in coming weeks it will publicly release an assessment of combatant and non-combatant casualties from U.S. counter-terrorism strikes in areas outside active war zones since 2009.

The decision, which follows years of criticism by human rights groups and others that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya have caused civilian casualties, was taken in the interest of transparency, according to Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s homeland security adviser.

The data would be released annually in future, she said.

“We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counter-terrorism effort and the broad support of our allies,” Monaco told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Monaco declined to provide details of the assessment, but said it would reflect the “latest intelligence from all sources” as well as input from human rights groups who monitor U.S. drone strikes and other U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

Rights groups have accused the Obama administration of not being forthcoming about the precise guidelines that govern drone strikes and dispute government claims that there is no evidence that they have produced “collateral damage,” a euphemism for civilian casualties.

There have also been questions raised about precisely who the administration has hit.

In 2013, McClatchy newspapers reported that contrary to assurances that U.S. drone strikes targeted only known leaders of al Qaeda and allied groups, classified documents showed that the Obama administration had killed hundreds of suspected lower-level militants in scores of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Perhaps most controversial in the United States are 2011 drone strikes authorized by Obama that killed four American civilians, including Anwar al Awlaki, an Islamic scholar and a leader of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, who used the Internet to recruit new members.

Monaco said the assessment would cover “all counter-terrorism actions outside the area of active hostilities across the board,” and stemmed from a 2013 pledge by Obama to provide greater transparency about U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the aim was to be more open about such security programs, when possible.

“There’s obviously limitations on that, but there is more that we can do,” he a daily news briefing.

Rights groups welcomed Monaco’s announcement but said the administration should go further.

“This is an important step, but it should be part of a broader reconsideration of the secrecy surrounding the drone campaign,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The authority to use lethal force should be subject to more stringent oversight by the public, by Congress, and, at least in some contexts, by the courts.”

The ACLU said that in response to a freedom-of-information suit filed by the union, the government had said it would release a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guidance, also known as “the Playbook,” a secret document that sets out the law and rules the government must follow when it carries out targeted killings.

Human Rights First noted that Monaco’s announcement came just hours after the Pentagon announced it killed more than 150 suspected combatants in drone and manned aircraft strikes in Somalia.

“For data on the number of casualties to be meaningful, the administration must provide more than numbers,” it said.

“The administration should also provide information on how it defines and assesses who is a civilian and who is a combatant, which terrorist group the killed combatants were members of, and where the strikes occurred,” it said.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Jonathan Landay and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese and Alan Crosby