NGOs Call U.S. Drone Program Illegal In Damning Reports

Two reports out today criticize the U.S. counterterrorism drone program and claim that the attacks kill many more civilians than the U.S. has acknowledged. The group Human Rights Watch studied six cases in Yemen. Amnesty International examined drone strikes in Pakistan during the past year and a half. Both groups accuse the U.S. of violating international law, and call on the U.S. to make the secret drone program more transparent to the public.

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Today, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report documenting the aftermath of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen - a 68-year-old grandmother killed in a farm field, in front of her family; laborers killed after they had gathered in a tent to get out of the summer sun, after a long day's work. The human rights groups are calling for more transparency from the Obama administration about America's drone program. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Human rights researchers say they traveled to remote, dangerous areas to interview witnesses; comparing those accounts with satellite images and photos of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. But Mustafa Qadri, of Amnesty International, says the biggest hurdle came from Washington.

MUSTAFA QADRI: The most challenging situation we had to face was the complete and utter secrecy of the U.S. authorities. Because of that, we cannot be 100 percent certain. But we are extremely concerned that these, and other killings documented in our report, may constitute extra-judicial executions or war crimes.

JOHNSON: Qadri says attacks on rescuers who raced to help after strikes in Pakistan raise concerns about whether the U.S. complied with the laws of war. But he doesn't know enough about U.S. targeting decisions to be certain. The same is true for Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch, who studied the use of drones in Yemen.

LETTA TAYLER: These strikes have killed an estimated 473 people. Yet the U.S. has only publicly acknowledged two of these strikes - those that have killed Americans. It's as if the hundreds of Yemenis killed in these attacks simply never existed.

JOHNSON: To make the case, Human Rights Watch tried to humanize the victims of drone strikes. For example, in September 2012, a drone in Yemen struck a dozen people in a passenger van - not an al-Qaida figure, Tayler says.

TAYLER: It turned out that all 12 people killed were villagers coming home from market. Their loved ones found their charred bodies in pieces on the roadside, dusted in flour and sugar that they were bringing home to their families.

JOHNSON: Advocates say they're not calling on the White House to stop using drones altogether. Instead, they want to know more about the legal basis for the attacks, and how the drones are being deployed. Andrea Prasow, of Human Rights Watch, says it's short-sighted for American authorities to keep avoiding those questions.

ANDREA PRASOW: Keep in mind that the United States is not the only nation that has drones. Drones are proliferating; and the failure to abide by international law now, by the United States, will set a dangerous precedent for other nations to also disregard it.

JOHNSON: International law requires countries to offer compensation for the killing of civilians. But the researchers say they found little evidence that happens. In one case they could identify, the family of a 68-year-old grandmother who died in Pakistan last year, got about $100 U.S. At the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney said the groups are overestimating civilian deaths.

JAY CARNEY: By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life. U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.

JOHNSON: In a speech at the National Defense University earlier this year, President Obama laid out a framework for his counterterrorism strategy. He acknowledged the U.S. had killed some innocent civilians, though fewer than human rights groups say. Obama said drones are still far more precise than conventional weapons that kill more people. And recent evidence suggests the U.S. is already using drones less often.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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