The New York Times has a long piece (8/12/11) looking at the question of how many civilians in Pakistan are killed by CIA drones. The agency doesn't even speak about the program on the record, except to make the far-fetched claim that no civilians have died in the past year or so.
The article, written by Scott Shane, includes some useful criticism of the CIA, and it's hard not to conclude that the agency's claims are not very credible.
But the real problem with the piece is that it gives much weight to the CIA's defense at all, using their almost entirely anonymous claims as one side in a dispute:
The government's assertion of zero collateral deaths meets with deep skepticism from many independent experts. And a new report from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which conducted interviews in Pakistan's tribal area, concluded that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes during the last year.
Shane writes that a "closer look at the competing claims… suggests reasons to doubt the precision and certainty of the agency's civilian death count." He adds, though, that "if there are doubts about the CIA claim, there are also questions about the reliability of critics' reports of noncombatant deaths."
Shane also reports that "American officials" do not trust Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who has been a key player and is suing the CIA– which apparently discredits the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism study:
American officials said the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report was suspect because it relied in part on information supplied by Mr. Akbar, who publicly named the CIA's undercover Pakistan station chief in December when announcing his legal campaign against the drones.
If you read some of the British press about this study (as I did, thanks to CommonDreams.org), you get a very different impression than the one you get from the New York Times. From the Telegraph:
168 Children Killed in Drone Strikes
in Pakistan Since Start of Campaign
New research to send shockwaves through Pakistan
by Rob Crilly, Islamabad
In an extensive analysis of open-source documents, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 2,292 people had been killed by U.S. missiles, including as many as 775 civilians.
An opinion piece at the Guardian:
The Civilian Victims
of the CIA's Drone War
A new study gives us the truest picture yet–in contrast to the CIA's own account–of drones' grim toll of 'collateral damage'
In that piece, Smith writes:
This week, a new report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives us the best picture yet of the impact of the CIA's drone war in Pakistan. The CIA claims that there has been not one "noncombatant" killed in the past year. This claim always seemed to be biased advocacy rather than honest fact. Indeed, the Guardian recently published some of the pictures we have obtained of the aftermath of drone strikes. There were photos of a child called Naeem Ullah killed in Datta Khel and two kids in Piranho, both within the timeframe of the CIA's dubious declaration.
The BIJ reporting begins to fill in the actual numbers. It's a bleak view: more people killed than previously thought, including an estimated 160 children overall. This study should help to create a greater sense of reality around what is going on in these remote regions of Pakistan. This is precisely what has been lacking in the one-sided reporting of the issue–and it doesn't take an intelligence analyst to realize that vague and one-sided is just the way the CIA wants to keep it.
The Times account obeys normal journalistic "rules" about balance and giving official sources their say. Which, in this case, amounts to giving space to anonymous killers to defend their actions.