WASHINGTON — U.S. airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed far more civilians than American officials acknowledge, and many of the attacks appear to have been illegal under international law, according to a pair of reports by human rights organizations based on interviews with survivors and witnesses.
The reports by Amnesty International, which looked into nine strikes in Pakistan, and Human Rights Watch, which examined six attacks in Yemen, also assert that the U.S. has killed militants when capturing them was a feasible option. In Pakistan, Amnesty found that U.S. missiles have targeted rescuers and other groups of people in an indiscriminate manner that increased the likelihood of civilian deaths.
The reports, distributed in advance to the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau and other news organizations, are being released at a news conference Tuesday morning in Washington.
The CIA had no comment, and the White House declined to respond in detail, but it pointed out that President Barack Obama in May announced tighter rules of engagement that he said would make it less likely civilians would be killed or injured in targeted strikes. Most of the attacks detailed in the two reports took place before Obama's speech.
American officials have portrayed drone strikes as both lawful and clinically precise. CIA Director John Brennan said in April 2012 when he was a White House counterterrorism adviser that "never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians."
But Amnesty said 29 noncombatants died in the Pakistan attacks it investigated, and Human Rights Watch counted 57 civilians dead in six incidents in Yemen, including 41 in a December 2009 cruise missile strike based on bad intelligence from the Yemeni government. Most of the strikes involved missiles fired from remotely piloted drone aircraft.
The authors of the reports acknowledged that in many cases it was difficult to say with certainty whether adult men killed in a particular strike were members of al-Qaida or associated forces who had participated in or were planning attacks on U.S. interests.
Relatives of the dead often insist that their loved ones had no connection to extremism. American intelligence officials and their congressional overseers say that in almost all cases, the strikes have hit legitimate targets.
The human rights activists argue that, under international law, mere membership in an organization or past participation in hostilities against the U.S. does not make someone a legitimate target for a drone strike. And they say that despite Obama's pledge this year to be more transparent, the U.S. is still releasing almost no information about who it is killing and why.
"We think these people were civilians, and the onus is on the U.S. government to prove otherwise," said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International, who helped write the group's report. "The U.S. government has this information and is withholding it."
Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch said: "The U.S. should explain who it's killing and why it's killing them. We strongly suspect that their definition of 'combatant' is elastic and that they are stretching it beyond what international law allows."
Two airstrikes in Pakistan examined by Amnesty that occurred after May did not appear to include any civilian casualties. None of the strikes in Yemen detailed by Human Rights Watch occurred after Obama's speech. However, the administration has informed Congress that a young child, the brother of a targeted militant, was killed inadvertently in a June drone strike in Yemen, two U.S. officials said.
The largest loss of civilian life discussed in the report occurred in a cruise missile attack on Dec. 17, 2009, in Yemen's Abyan province.
As many as five U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with cluster munitions struck the hamlet of Majalah, Human Rights Watch said, in a case that has been explored in a previous Amnesty report and in news accounts and books.
Though the attack killed 14 people believed to be al-Qaida combatants, it also killed at least 41 Bedouins from two extended families, according to a Yemeni government investigation. Nine of the dead were women -- five of them pregnant -- and 21 were children, the investigation found.
"That one you could argue was bad intelligence from the Yemenis," an unnamed Yemeni official told Human Rights Watch.
The reports call the U.S. assurances into question. A strike on July 6, 2012, in Pakistan's North Waziristan region killed 18 people, most if not all of whom were noncombatants, Amnesty asserts.
Witnesses told Amnesty that the attack came in two waves. A group of laborers had gathered at a tent after a long day of work. A series of missiles struck, and then more missiles hit villagers who approached to help, some of them carrying stretchers.
Though residents acknowledged that some people in the village were sympathetic to the Taliban, they insisted that none of those killed were Taliban fighters.
Even if they were, "how could the U.S.A. attempt to justify the second missile strike, which appeared to target those who had gone to rescue people injured in the first strike and recover the dead?" Amnesty asked. "Attacking the injured and (rescuers) is prohibited under international humanitarian law."
That attack appears to fit the profile of a signature strike, an operation in which the CIA attacks groups of suspected militants whose names are not known, but who in the eyes of analysts watching drone surveillance video fit a pattern of behavior that marks them as a threat.
The Amnesty report also criticizes the Pakistani government. Even as officials in Islamabad, the capital, publicly condemn drone attacks, "elements of the state" are suspected of colluding with those behind the attacks, the report says, an apparent reference to Pakistan's military and spy agencies. This ambiguity tends to discourage Islamabad from investigating civilian attacks, helping drone strike victims or pressuring the U.S. for greater accountability, Amnesty said.