White House to disclose casualty counts from drone strikes

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The Obama administration will disclose how many people have been killed by U.S. drone and counterterrorism strikes since 2009. 

"Going forward, these figures will be provided annually," Lisa Monaco, Obama's counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, announced Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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She called it the "best thing to do" to help maintain the legitimacy of U.S. counterterrorism operations.

"This is a reflection of the president's commitment to transparency," Monaco added. 

The White House has long faced criticism from human rights groups and lawmakers for its lack of transparency on casualties — either civilian or combatant — from U.S. drone strikes. 

The assessment will be released in the coming weeks, Monaco said.

It will not cover "active hostilities," such as in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but will include strikes in nations such as Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. 

The report is not expected to detail deaths by country but will instead offer an aggregate assessment.

"There will obviously be some limitations on where we can be transparent, given a variety of sensitivities, including diplomatic ones," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday.

"But, again, there is no denying that we have moved from even being loathe to confirm these operations take place anywhere to not just confirming they take place in a lot of places, but also tallying up the results. That’s substantial progress,” he added.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffWH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report Week ahead: Election hacks, Yahoo breach in the spotlight Overnight Tech: Pressure builds ahead of TV box vote | Intel Dems warn about Russian election hacks | Spending bill doesn't include internet measure MORE (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, praised the announcement and said Congress should pass legislation to make sure the policy lasts beyond the Obama administration. 

"A public, annual report on the number of combatants and noncombatants killed will provide an important measure of transparency regarding targeted, lethal strikes," Schiff said in a statement.

"Despite our best efforts to ensure to a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, sometimes strikes do result in civilian casualties - and it is important that we acknowledge those accidents and learn from them.

"At the same time, greater transparency can help narrow the perception gap between what really happens, and what is reported or sent out as propaganda," he continued. "I also believe that issuing these reports helps set an example for other nations that now or in the future will strike at terrorists from the air."

Late last Friday, the Justice Department also said that it would voluntarily release a redacted version of the White House’s legal “playbook” for targeted killings, outlining the laws and policies that the government must follow.

The classified document, formally known as a presidential policy guidance, has been kept under wraps for years, though the White House released a fact sheet summarizing its general standards and procedures in 2013. 

The decision also comes amid a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, during which Judge Colleen McMahon asked to review the document in private. The Justice Department said it had been considering releasing it “discretionarily” before the judge’s order. 

In addition to the scaled-back “playbook,” the government will reveal more details about two previously released — but heavily redacted — Defense Department reports from 2014. Those reports cover legal standards for targeted killings and an assessment of al Qaeda-linked organizations against which the U.S. is legally at war.

The Justice Department has said the documents will be released after McMahon issues her final ruling, which could take weeks or months. 

The Pentagon on Monday also revealed that a U.S. airstrike in Somalia on an al Qaeda training camp killed more than 150 fighters. Officials said the fighters were preparing to launch a large-scale attack against African or U.S. personnel. 

This story was last updated at 2:26 p.m.

Jordan Fabian and Julian Hattem contributed.