President Trump on Wednesday issued an executive order revoking an Obama-era requirement to publicly report the number of U.S. drone strikes outside of war zones and the number of civilians killed by them.
The new policy does not cover Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, areas of conflict where the United States has troops currently deployed. It only applies to drone strikes carried out by intelligence operatives — i.e., the CIA. The military reports casualties separately in the theaters where it operates.
Trump’s order effectively canceled a policy, signed by President Barack Obama in July 2016, requiring U.S. officials to release “an unclassified summary of the number of strikes undertaken by the United States government outside areas of active hostilities,” as well as a related civilian casualty report by May 1 each year.
The president also revoked a section of a law, passed by Congress last year, which specified the report “shall be made available to the public unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that the publication of the report would pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States.”
In a statement, the White House National Security Council said Trump’s order removes “superfluous reporting requirements” that “distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.”
“This is a shameful decision that will shroud this administration’s actions in even more secrecy with little accountability for its victims," Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of security with human rights, said in a statement. “The public deserves to know how many civilians are killed by U.S. actions. This is an unconscionable decision and in complete disregard of fundamental human rights. It is incomprehensible that this vital work will be left only to human rights organizations such as ours.”
Ned Price, a former spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama who is now a director at the National Security Action policy advocacy group, told Bloomberg News that Trump’s move is “a shortsighted decision that will allow our enemies to be more effective at what they’ve long sought to do.”
Obama was widely criticized for expanding the use of armed drones by the U.S. military, authorizing at least 542 strikes during his presidency that caused an estimated 3,797 deaths, including 324 civilians, according to data from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet Trump’s drone program was even more active than Obama’s in his first two years as commander in chief. According to U.S. government data released last November, Trump authorized 238 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, compared with 186 authorized by Obama during his first two years in office.
It’s unclear how many civilians were killed in drone strikes authorized by Trump.
As Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev noted, the Trump administration last year ignored a May deadline for disclosing civilian and enemy casualties required under Obama’s order.
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