Obama aides defend claim of low civilian casualties after drone 'kill list' report

The Obama White House is pushing back against a New York Times article that claimed the administration uses creative accounting to reduce the number of civilian casualties recorded in its expanded use of drones to attack terrorism targets.

"It's a wild oversimplification that lacks context," an aide to the president said of the Times article, which was published Tuesday and claimed that the commander-in-chief has "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties."

"This story is debating whether there are zero civilian casualties or eight," the White House official told Fox News -- in effect suggesting that whatever the actual number of civilian casualties caused by the president's use of drones, the incidence of collateral damage is dramatically reduced under the Obama command.

Aides would not comment directly on an assertion in the article by an unnamed official who said civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan over the last three years are "in the single digits." But they argued that President Obama's broader national security initiatives, including his withdrawals of ground troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, had contributed to an overall reduction in unintended deaths.

They also claimed that drone attacks themselves are safer than ever before.

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"We have at our disposal tools that make avoidance of civilian casualties much easier, and tools that make precision targeting possible in ways that have never existed in the past," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday.  A White House aide defended Carney's statement, telling Fox News: "Every year these technologies improve."

By some estimates, the Obama administration has presided over an increase of nearly 500 percent in drone strikes. The Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish non-profit group that advocates for a muscular foreign policy, reported recently that more than 2,000 militants have been killed in Pakistan and Yemen since January 2009, compared with fewer than 500 under President George W. Bush.

Such dramatic increases in enemy body counts must be accompanied by increased numbers of civilian casualties, some analysts assert.

But the Obama administration emphasizes that most drone attacks occur in sparsely populated sites. "These are the hardest to reach, most under-developed areas in the whole world," an aide to the president said. "We're talking about a camp in the middle of the desert, or a house where IEDs are being constructed."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told Fox News he is unaware of any change in the way the U.S. counts corpses after drone strikes or other counterterrorism operations. But he added that if it is true, as the Times reported on Tuesday, that Obama has "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties," then the administration should have briefed the committee on the change in methodology.

Chambliss emphasized that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have tried to limit civilian deaths.

"There's no question we are doing a better job" in more recent years, he said, citing advances in technology; but Chambliss acknowledged that "collateral damage is always an issue" and said both administrations witnessed efforts by those who are hostile to America to "magnify" the problem, so as to "inflame" local sentiment against the U.S.

If the administration is correct in its assertions that civilian casualties have never been lower since the 9/11 attacks, outside observers believe the drone strikes can still have a damaging impact without necessarily resulting in the deaths of innocents.

"Certainly, they are not without side effects, collateral damage," said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an appearance on Fox News' "Happening Now with Jon Scott and Jenna Lee."

"There's mounting evidence that much of the radicalization of the Yemeni population in these provinces is because of the drone strikes.  The drone strikes are turning the population against the U.S., so it's not simply a fight against the Yemeni government, but more and more against the United States. And that is certainly attracting many of these fighters from other countries, like Somalia and Afghanistan."