By Phil Stewart, Jonathan Landay and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's government accepted responsibility on Friday for inadvertently killing up to 116 civilians in strikes in countries where America is not at war, a major disclosure likely to inflame debate about targeted killings and use of drones.
Obama's goal for the release of the numbers, which are higher than any previously acknowledged by his government but vastly below private estimates, is to create greater transparency about what the U.S. military and CIA are doing to fight militants plotting against the United States.
But the figures, which covered strikes from the day Obama took office in January 2009 through Dec. 31, 2015, were below even the most conservative estimates by non-governmental organizations that spent years tallying U.S. strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
"The numbers reported by the White House today simply don’t add up and we're disappointed by that," said Federico Borello, executive director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
Drone advocates, including those within the U.S. military, argue the strikes are an essential part of reducing the ability of militant groups to plot attacks against the United States. They say the government goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
Critics of the targeted killing program question whether the strikes create more militants than they kill. They cite the spread of jihadist organizations and militant attacks throughout the world as evidence that targeted killings may be exacerbating the problem.
"We're still faced with the basic question: Is the number of bad guys who are taken out of commission by drone strikes greater or less than the number of people who are inspired to turn to violent acts," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA specialist on the Middle East and now a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who says he represents a hundred families of civilians killed by drones, questioned the validity of the data even before their release by the Director of National Intelligence.
He said Washington needed to better explain its criteria for declaring someone a civilian, something that can be difficult to do from a camera on a drone.
"President Obama is worried about his legacy as a president who ordered extra-judicial killings of thousands which resulted in a high number of civilian deaths," Akbar told Reuters.
"As a constitutional lawyer himself, he knows what's wrong with that."
Senior Obama administration officials stressed that the United States goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and refrains from making strikes due to such concerns. One official said that in order for militants to be targeted, they must be a "continuing and imminent threat" to U.S. persons.
BEYOND THE EDGES OF U.S. WARS
Drone strikes are carried out by both the CIA and the military but the report did not break out how many were carried out by each.
The report included only strikes outside war zones, which meant that strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were not included. That significantly lowers the figure.
In Afghanistan, for example, 42 people were killed and 37 wounded in a mistaken U.S. military strike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz last year.
A U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the total of 473 strikes disclosed by the Obama administration on Friday included strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Many of those are believed to have taken place in Pakistan, where NGOs also say a large number of civilians were killed.
The New America think tank estimated up to 315 civilians were killed in Pakistan in U.S. strikes since 2004. The Long War Journal estimated 158 were killed there since 2006 and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism believed the civilian death toll could be as high as 966.
"By admitting to a smaller number of civilian killings and the method adopted he is trying to down play the whole process," Akbar said.
In Somalia, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that up to 10 civilians were killed in up to 31 drone strikes since 2007.
"Last month, a drone killed a relative of mine and a dozen of his camels and goats," local elder Mohamed Ismail from the Wanlaweyn town in southern Somalia, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad; Editing by Bernard Orr and Bill Trott)