How Hiding Casualties from Drone Strikes Betrays American Values


By Andrew Quist

On March 6, President Trump overturned an Obama era rule that mandated the disclosure of the numbers of drone strikes and resulting combatant and civilian deaths outside of designated combat zones, in places like Pakistan and Yemen. (In fact, the Trump administration ignored this reporting requirement last year, so the executive order merely codified the Trump Administration’s practice of not reporting causalities from drone strikes.)

This action by the Trump administration is demonstrative of a theory of choice known as the prominence effect. The prominence effect causes people to devalue stated preferences in favor of a course of action that is perceived to be strong in the most prominent or defensible attribute. In the realm of national security decision making, scientists theorize that government officials and the U.S. president devalue foreign lives in favor of actions that are perceived to enhance national security. With its latest executive order, the Trump administration is signaling that they have devalued foreign lives so much, that it’s not even worth reporting when the U.S. government kills innocent civilians. In in the minds of the President and his advisors, the spotlight is on national security, so why care about anything else?

The nonreporting of civilian deaths from drone strikes is only the latest aspect of U.S. foreign policy that demonstrates the prominence effect. The Obama administration’s decisions on drone strikes also illustrates this disturbing way of thinking. According to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, when the Obama administration killed people in a drone strike, rather than carefully assessing who was a civilian and who was a combatant, officials would assume that all who were killed were terrorists. It was only when journalists or non-government monitoring organizations proved that someone killed was a civilian that the administration would admit to killing an innocent person. This is why the number of civilian causalities from drone strikes the Obama administration reported was much lower than the reports from monitoring groups.

The Obama administration claimed that between 2009 and 2016, 64 to 116 civilians were killed from drone strikes. However, according to The New York Times, monitoring organizations have estimated that between 200 and 800 civilians were killed during this time period. This is despite the fact that the official policy of the U.S. government has been that no drone strike will be conducted outside of combat zones unless there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed. The fact that 200 to 800 innocent people were killed by drone strikes during his presidency demonstrates that the Obama administration did not adhere to this standard.

The issue of reporting on casualties from drone strikes also illustrates another cognitive bias discussed on this website: psychic numbing. When the Obama administration released its report on drone strike causalities, it did not include any details. As The Washington Post reported, “In releasing only aggregate figures that did not include when or where the strikes occurred, the administration shielded those claims from meaningful public scrutiny.” Psychologists have shown in numerous experiments that when people are presented with information about deaths in the form of statistics, the information fails to convey emotional meaning or affect and therefore people are not motivated to prevent future killing. It takes individual details about victims—name, age, occupation, family members left behind, visual images—for people to care.

The U.S. government asserts that it values foreign lives and takes every precaution to ensure that civilians are not killed, especially outside of war zones. To live up to this ideal, U.S. officials should offer a full accounting of those killed by drone strikes, and they should include details about the victims so that Americans can truly understand the actions of its government.