ProPublica: Does the U.S. Pay Families When Drones Kill Innocent Yemenis?


This piece, written by Cora Currier of ProPublica, was originally published Aug. 12, 2013.

There have been nine drone strikes reported in Yemen in the past two weeks, an uptick apparently connected to the Al Qaeda threat that shut down U.S. embassies across the Middle East and Africa. As many as six civilian deaths have also been reported.

President Obama has promised increased transparency around drones, but when asked about the strikes on Friday, Obama wouldn’t even confirm U.S. involvement.

“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.

The military is also following that line, refusing to release details about what happens when civilians are harmed in these strikes, including if and how families of innocent victims are compensated.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, U.S. Central Command told ProPublica it has 33 pages somehow related to condolence payments in Yemen 2013 but it won’t release any of them, or detail what they are.

The military’s letter rejecting our FOIA cites a series of reasons, including classified national security information. (Here’s the letter.)

There’s no way to know what the military is withholding. A Pentagon spokesman told us they haven’t actually made condolence payments in Yemen. But CIA director John Brennan said during his confirmation process in February that the U.S. does offer condolence payments to the families of civilians killed in U.S. strikes. (Both the military and CIA fly drones over Yemen.)

In May, the White House released new guidelines for targeted killing, saying that there must be a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” But the administration has said little about how civilian deaths are assessed or handled when they do occur. It has refused to address the U.S. role in almost any particular death 2013 including that of a 10-year-old boy, killed a few weeks after Obama’s promise of increased transparency.

Outside reporting on drone strike deaths is spotty and often conflicted. On Sunday, a Yemeni activist and journalist named three civilians who had been injured, “just hanging arnd n thir neighborhood.” Another recent strike killed up to five “militants,” according to Reuters and other news agencies. But Yemenis reported on Twitter that a child was also killed. (The White House declined to comment to ProPublica on the recent strikes or on condolence payments.)

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has long given out condolence payments, which military leaders have come to see as a key part of the battle for hearts and minds. What might seem like a callous exercise 2013 assigning a dollar amount to a human life 2013 is also embraced by many humanitarian groups. The Center for Civilians in Conflict, for example, sees it as a way to help families financially and as “a gesture of respect.” In fiscal year 2012, condolence payments in Afghanistan totaled nearly a million dollars.

It’s likely harder to do that in the drone war. Military and intelligence leaders have expressed concern about “blowback” from local populations resentful of the strikes. But the U.S. has no visible troops on the ground in countries like Yemen or Pakistan, and almost never acknowledges specific strikes.

Despite the recent surge, overall there have been far fewer drone strikes and civilian deaths alleged in 2013 than in previous years.

For more on the U.S.’ shadowy drone war, read ProPublica’s latest story, “Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified,” coverage of the controversial practice of “signature strikes“, and the organization’s chat with national security reporters on the challenges of covering a remote and secret war.


Personal Liberty


is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. The organization’s work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” ProPublica seeks to produce journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. ProPublica is headquartered in Manhattan. Its establishment was announced in October 2007. Operations commenced in January 2008, and publishing began in June 2008.

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    Obummer is a War Criminal for sure. The “Double Tap”, when a 2nd drone hits a few minutes after the first one, when the rescue workers are there to save lives, insures many innocents die …this started under Obummer! No one hardly ever mentions it. Look at the numbers: Bush 43 drone strikes in 8 years, Obummer over 500 in less than 5 years, he’s using something that should be used sparingly & surgically like a fly swatter or machine gun!!! Where’s the Hague, The ICC when you need them? If this was a REpublican doing these same things the media & the loony Left would be screaming for their heads!

  • mthammer

    How is the citizens of this country allowing this fraudulaent Muslim President and His Muslim Cia Head desroy civilians in other countries and then just pay them off with money we dont have . Oh thats right call up Bernanke and have him print up some more, thaats what you have been doing the last 4 years , you guys are all traitors.

  • considering

    Looking at it from a different perspective:- assuming that the USA had ground troops on the ground instead of using drones, would the casualty list be greater or less than has been the case during these conflicts? Let’s face it, war is war, and the question we need to ask is why do we really make war and not not how many casualties occur?

  • Vigilant

    Question: “ProPublica: Does the U.S. Pay Families When Drones Kill Innocent Yemenis?”

    Answer: “CIA director John Brennan said during his confirmation process in February that the U.S. does offer condolence payments to the families of civilians killed in U.S. strikes.”

    Case closed.

    Comment: you obviously have me confused with someone who gives a damn, one way or the other.

  • Gimmesumadat Whatyougot

    “A State Of War Only Serves As An Excuse For Domestic Tyranny.” Alexander Solzhenictsyn. Oh, It also provides cover for clandestine operations abroad. This “War On Terror” has been going on so long that people don’t remember how it started, who was really involved, and what OIL has to do with terrorism.

    Bin Laden was not on the wanted list of the FBI for 9-11. Sadahm was not involved at all. Gaddafi and the two mentioned previously were absolutely no threat to the U.S. It is certain that Bin Laden was a CIA asset for much of his life. And used as a scape-goat when it would be deemed ‘most effective’.

    Al Quaeda has it’s origins traced to the CIA funding and training under Ronald Regan / George H Bush, during the Russian / Afghan War. Starting with Radical Fundamental Mujahideen Muslims of Afghanistan and the surrounding area, then being supplied and trained to use shoulder fired rockets to take down the Soviet Helicopters. The Russians went bankrupt and communism fell as a result.

    There is a bright side. It turns out that Afghanistan is sitting on possibly several Trillion US dollars worth of Uranium, Platinum, and Lithium among other minerals. And according to a US Geological Survey, Afghanistan also has an estimated 2.9 bn. barrels of crude. Afghanistan also received a new pipeline courtesy of the US in 2002 to 2003. This allows a more direct route of shipping Saudi Crude Oil. Easier and safer access in troubled and dangerous times.

    While the US demonstrates it’s military prowess, it is subjecting the entire world to it’s determination of superiority over all others. The required energy to remain the dominant world power, has the US leaders aiming to control much of the world supply. As Rockefeller found out early on in the oil game, you don’t need to own all the oil, just control it’s distribution.

    It has also been shown that we are soon to experience the effects of “Peak Oil”. With growing demand, waning New Well production, slowing production due to factors such as having to use heavier crude, more difficult and thereby more costly extraction processes, we will see a slow but steady decline.

    There is your War on Terror.

    May the drones fly swift and stealthy, that you won’t know what hit you!

  • Vash the Stampede

    If they stop killing with drones we will save money & lives.