Murder by drone: Obama to announce civilian death toll numbers, but there's a catch

© US Air Force / Lt Col Leslie Pratt
President Barack Obama is expected to announce the number of civilians killed by "illegal" US drone strikes Friday, but only in countries where the world's biggest military hasn't officially declared war.

Several news outlets reported, citing leaks from US officials, that the number is expected to be just 100, a tiny fraction of those estimated by investigative journalists and human rights groups who track the "violations of international law."

The White House will only reveal civilian casualties in countries that are technically not at a US battlefield, like Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

READ MORE: Drones will stay in the air for weeks, track whole populations – Snowden

Those killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria will not be featured in the total. The US has deployed thousands of drones in these countries.

Jennifer Gibson from the human rights organization Reprieve, which has brought drone survivors to the US to testify, estimates more than 4,000 people have been killed by drones including hundreds of children and said the Obama administration’s estimation of casualties “is unlikely to be worth the paper it’s printed on.” 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates more than a thousand people killed in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Thousands of drone strikes have been conducted in these regions since 2009, with more than 300 occurring in Pakistan alone.

The administration delayed the release of its conservative estimates after originally announcing it in March, when it said it would be in the “coming weeks.”

Obama is also expected to issue an executive order that will require annual tallies of innocent people killed by drones to be made public, although he is not expected to charge those responsible for killing innocent adults and children, including himself, with war crimes.

READ MORE: 'Obama must be taken before ICC for the war on terror' - Chomsky to RT

He promised to be more forthcoming about drones during a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, where he was confronted by Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin on the issue.

The Democrat plans to reveal details of the Presidential Policy Guidance, the so-called legal framework used to determine when assassination by drone can be carried out, even though any attacks of this type outside of the battlefield violates international law, according to Mary Ellen O'Connell writing in the New York Times last year.

The professor from Notre Dame University's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which was set-up by the heiress of the McDonald's fortune in 1985, wrote, "No court may lawfully issue torture warrants or permit drone attacks."

"The law on drones is clear: US Predator and Reaper drones launch the Hellfire missile. Hellfire missiles were originally developed to destroy tanks. They are battlefield weapons. Under international law they may be used in situations of armed conflict hostilities, which means the actual fighting of an armed conflict as defined under international law — limited geographical spaces where organized armed groups are engaged in actual fighting of some intensity."

The government had previously admitted to a handful of civilian casualties, but it considers any military-age men killed in drone strikes to be combatants, rejecting the "innocent before proven guilty" pillar of US domestic law and reducing the total of "innocents" killed.

READ MORE: 'New Snowden' releases Obama's drone program papers

Revelations from The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill in 2015 uncovered the scope of the program than had previously been surrounded in secrecy.

He revealed the US method of counting all unknown deaths as enemies killed in combat and that nearly 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes are civilians.

The drone program uses a “non combatant casualty cutoff value” sliding scale to decide whether civilian casualties are permitted, based on the value of killing the intended target.

Despite assurances that drone assassinations are more precise and “clean” than traditional warfare, the US has "accidentally" killed at least seven of its own citizens among its collateral damage.

Those that oppose the drone program highlight how the killings radicalize communities victimized by the Hellfire missiles from the sky, citing evidence of the countries targeted by drones becoming more militant, breeding resentment, and being used as a recruitment tool by terrorists.

It is unlikely the drone attacks will stop under the next US president as all three major candidates, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, have said they would continue what Bush started and Obama ramped up.

Only Green Party candidate Jill Stein has called for a "ban use of drone aircraft for assassination, bombing, and other offensive purposes."