Trump quietly rewrote the rules of drone warfare, which means the US will continue to kill civilians in secret

written by Sinead Baker Business Insider edited by O Society Mar 22, 2019


Donald Trump signed an executive order reducing the number of civilian deaths from drones that the government must report.

Trump signed the order revoking an Obama-era requirement for the director of national intelligence to release an annual report on the number of deaths resulting from US operations in noncombat areas around the world.

Such areas include parts of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Venezuela, seen here:


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Barack Obama introduced the measure in 2016 as he faced pressure to be more transparent about the increased use of drones.

The US government says it will continue to report deaths in “areas of active hostilities” like Iraq and Syria.

Trump inherited Obama’s drone war and significantly expanded it in countries where the US is not technically at war

Previous reports counted as many as 117 civilian deaths outside these areas from 2009 to 2016. Some years the figures are expressed as a range instead of a precise number.

The Trump administration did not release reports in 2017 or 2018.

Rights groups say these figures do not show the whole picture.

US drone strikes
Pakistani protesters shouting slogans against US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region in Multan in October 2014.
SS MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images

Congressional requirements for the military to report civilian deaths in active combat areas will still be in place.

Experts say the new system will fail to catch strikes by agencies like the CIA, and represent a fall in transparency.

“Strikes by other government entities like the CIA were included under this requirement. This is the intention of the wording,” Rita Siemion, the international legal counsel for the group Human Rights First, told Politico.

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Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said the decision was “deeply wrong and dangerous for public accountability,” the Associated Press reported.



“This decision will hide from the public the government’s own tally of the total number of deaths it causes every year in its lethal force program.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the the House Intelligence Committee, said there is “no justification” for ending the practice, which he called “an important measure of transparency,” the BBC reported.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council told the Associated Press the government is fully committed to “minimizing — to the greatest extent possible — civilian causalities and acknowledging responsibility when they unfortunately occur during military operations.”


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Questionable accuracy

The director of national intelligence’s reports, which are supposed to be released annually since 2016, counted 64 to 116 civilian deaths from US drone strikes in noncombat zones from 2011 to 2015 and one civilian death in 2016.

The 2017 report was not released, though this executive order was then still in place.

The figures for each year are to be released in the May of the following year; therefore data have not been released for 2018 either.

Most civilian deaths from US drones occur in combat areas: theBureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 769 to 1,725 civilians have been killed since 2004, based on analysis of data from government, military, and intelligence officials as well as “credible” media and on-the-ground reports.

US Drone
An MQ-9 Reaper drone over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada in June 2015.
U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS

The bureau said there were 2,243 drone strikes in the first two years of the Trump presidency, compared with 1,878 during Obama’s entire eight-year tenure.

Rights and monitoring groups question the figures released by the government, which they say often do not represent the full breath of causalities from US or American-backed actions.

Daphne Eviatar, a director with Amnesty International USA, told The New York Times in 2018 that the Defense Department “has deemed that the vast majority of claims of civilian casualties are not credible without ever investigating them.”

“Its numbers therefore likely severely undercount the actual civilian death toll.”

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