The U.S. is disputing today a report that its counter-terror drone program has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, including more than 160 children.
The London-based non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a report this week that claimed the CIA drone program, credited for killing approximately 2,000 suspected militants, is also responsible for the deaths of 385 civilians, 168 of them kids, in 291 strikes since 2004.
"The numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark," a senior U.S. official told ABC News. "We see the battlefield in real time; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism doesn't... This group's allegations about individual strikes are, in every case, divorced from the facts on the ground."
The official said that while the U.S. agrees around 2,000 suspected militants have been killed, the total civilian casualties are closer to 50. One of the "loudest voices" in the report is that of a Pakistani lawyer who is currently involved in legal action with the U.S., the official said. "His agenda is crystal clear."
The lead reporter on the BIJ's project, Chris Woods, told ABC News that the group has no agenda and simply compiled public information while attempting to corroborate what they could on the ground, since the CIA's figures are unavailable to them.
"We certainly don't think our numbers are off the mark," Woods said. "The strikes we're reporting and the casualty figures we're reporting are directly sourced from credible media reports and other sources where we've done our best to get the clearest public understanding of what's happening in these strikes. Of course what's missing from the information is the internal information from the CIA itself."
The numbers, the BIJ said, are based on media reports, eyewitness accounts and reporting from other non-profit groups. In parts, the BIJ's data contradicts public claims by U.S. officials including that of White House counter-terror advisor John Brennan when he said in June the drone program had seen "not a single collateral death" in nearly a year. By the BIJ numbers, at least 30 civilians have been killed this year alone.
"We can't confirm any noncombatant casualties," the U.S. official said today of the drone program in the past year, echoing Brennan's assertion.
A random sampling of the data shows that when referencing press reports, the BIJ cites several well-known American outlets, from the Los Angeles Times to CNN, along with local Pakistani newspapers, international wire services, and at times, Chinese state news. The numbers of killed and injured are given in a range, based on disputes in the reports and in several accounts, the killed are identified by some outlets as militants and by others as civilians. Woods said the BIJ defines children as under the age of 18, in accordance with the United Nations.
While admitting "nobody is arguing perfection" for the drone program, the U.S. official said the government's casualty count is far more reliable than media reports.
"Our information is by far the most accurate because we have real-time eyes on the targets, as well as multiple other forms of collection to assess who may have been killed," the official said. "This remains the most precise system we've ever had in our arsenal. U.S. counter-terrorism operations have taken terrorist leaders, facilitators, instructors, and fighters off the battlefield."
Woods said that database is dynamic and designed to be updated as additional information comes to light, including new numbers U.S. senior defense officials provided the BIJ in response to the original report.
The report comes as the U.S. continues an aggressive string of strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where dozens have been killed this week -- all reportedly suspected militants.