Drone Wars

Over a decade after the CIA launched its first lethal drone strike, in Yemen in 2002, the covert targeted killing campaign is facing its toughest challenge yet. For the first time, drone strikes are being debated publicly in congressional hearings, shifts in the administration’s position on the program are front page news, and prominent human rights organizations have taken a clear, unified stance against the program’s lack of transparency and accountability.

Under President Barack Obama, CIA drone strikes soared in number in Pakistan, and resumed in Yemen after a seven-year hiatus. Swayed by increased pushback from the public both at home and overseas, as well as concern from Congress and human rights lawyers, the administration has considered moving the lethal campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon. A close look at the trends and impact of the drone program under the CIA is essential to understanding these shifts in opinion and policy, and to making informed decisions about where it should go from here.

These databases seek to fill that role by providing as much information as possible about the covert U.S. drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in the absence of any such transparency on the part of the American government. The data was collected from credible news reports and is presented here with those sources.

Our databases of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen were originally published in February 2010 and March 2012, respectively. Katherine Tiedemann, then a Policy Analyst at the New America Foundation, first created the Pakistan site, which was later amended by Andrew Leibovich, then a Program Associate at the New America Foundation, both working with Peter Bergen, the director of the foundation’s National Security Studies Program. The Yemen site was initially authored by Jennifer Rowland, then a Program Associate with the foundation.

The Pakistan database underwent a comprehensive review in the summer of 2012. As part of this process, we established an updated methodology for counting drone strikes and deaths, incorporated additional news reports about the drone strikes, and presented the data in a revised format for greater clarity.

This review was undertaken by Meg Braun, a Rhodes Scholar working towards her MPhil in International Relations at St. John’s College at Oxford University; Fatima Mustafa, a Pakistani PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston University; Farhad Peikar, an Afghan journalist and masters student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs; and Jennifer Rowland, a Program Associate with the New America Foundation, all working together with Peter Bergen.

The New America Foundation’s Yemen database went through a similar review process in the summer of 2013. Annie Osborne, then a recent graduate from Duke University, and Bailey Cahall, a Research Associate at the New America Foundation, conducted this review, both working with Peter Bergen. Using the methodology established for the Pakistan site, casualty counts were updated, information from additional news sources was included in the site, and the data presentation was updated to match the format of the Pakistan site.

We would also like to thank the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, and the Columbia University Law School for their valuable work on this subject, from which we have benefited and improved our own research.

The Effort at Home

At home, the number of jihadist extremists indicted for terrorism crimes has continued to decline from its peak in 2009.  The threat has morphed moving further towards acts by lone individuals inspired by al-Qaeda, but with few, if any, direct ties to foreign terrorist organizations.  As the threat has changed, and the U.S. government’s focus turned towards homegrown extremism after a spike in arrests in 2009, there was increasing debate over the seriousness of the threat at home and the appropriate methods to secure the homeland.  When leaks by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had collected the telephone metadata (the originating phone number, recipient phone number, time and length of call) of all Americans, controversy surged over the importance of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to preventing terrorism.

The New America Foundation’s database of homegrown extremists and analysis of the role of the NSA bulk surveillance programs in preventing terrorism in the United States seeks to address some of these issues.  Originally a collaboration between the New America Foundation’s National Security Program and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the database underwent a full review, update, and expansion in 2013.

Creative Commons

This study carries a Creative Commons license, which permits the re-use of New America content when proper attribution is provided. Please click here for conditions of use, and when citing please attribute to the New America Foundation's drones database.