Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama's Last-Minute Drone Strike Reporting Requirements
from the public-is-purchasing-civilian-deaths-and-the-gov't-won't-even-give-it-a dept
After years of increasing overseas drone strikes, the Obama administration briefly attempted to salvage its reputation. Having turned countries like Syria and Yemen into the Killingest Places on Earth, Obama drafted a few rules to rein in the use of drones. A charitable take was that he recognized the blowback caused by these strikes, which tended to result in the unintended killing of civilians. A less charitable take is he recognized he might be turning these powers over to the Republicans and wanted to tie them up with restrictions he would have never placed on his own administration.
One of the few positive steps Obama took was mandating periodic reporting on drone strikes to assess the amount of collateral damage caused by these attacks, presumably in hopes of further reducing civilian casualties. Obama’s executive order instituted yearly reporting that would (eventually) be passed on to the public.
Report on Strikes Undertaken by the U.S. Government Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities. (a) The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), or such other official as the President may designate, shall obtain from relevant agencies information about the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities from January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2016, as well as assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, and publicly release an unclassified summary of such information no later than May 1, 2017. By May 1 of each subsequent year, as consistent with the need to protect sources and methods, the DNI shall publicly release a report with the same information for the preceding calendar year.
The problem with instituting policies via executive orders is they can be undone using the same process. It appears the Trump Administration isn’t willing to abide by the rules the previous administration left for it to deal. Trump’s executive order rescinds Obama’s directive, allowing this administration to operate with the same opacity the previous administration enjoyed for its duration.
And we can’t even say Obama’s reporting requirement was great while it lasted. It went into force July 1, 2016. By the time the first reporting period rolled around in 2018, a different president was in office. As Charlie Savage points out for the New York Times, the new order simply codifies this administration’s failure to publish the first required report.
Mr. Trump’s revocation of the disclosure rule amounted to a belated acknowledgment that his administration had already changed the Obama policy in practice: The director of national intelligence never put out a report about bystander casualties in 2017, even though the Obama-era order requiring one remained on the books last year, when the report was due out.
Trump’s order claims the reporting is redundant as there are other drone strike reports already mandated by law. But this revocation gives the CIA — an agency that has “acquired a taste” for deadly drone strikes — complete opacity. The reporting requirements left untouched by Trump’s order only affects Defense Department drone operations. The CIA’s operations — often carried out away from areas declared war zones by the US government — will continue to operate under the radar, safely shielded from the eyes of the public.
We don’t know if the CIA’s use of drone strikes has kept pace with the DoD’s escalation. And we may never find out. But one thing’s for certain: the Trump Administration will be deploying far more drone strikes than the drone-happy Obama Administration. This can be gleaned by the few strike numbers that have been made public by the Defense Department, as collated here by Steve Niva, the editor of the Middle East Report.
Trump promised during the campaign to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and it appears to be one of the few promises he has kept. Trump inherited from Obama an escalating war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but both conventional bombing and drone strikes have significantly increased under Trump as a result of his new ISIS battle plan, whose strategy Defense Secretary James Mattis defines as “annihilation tactics.”
[I]n the past three years, the number of military drone strikes there has also climbed, from 304 in 2015, to 376 last year, to 362 through the first eight months of Trump’s presidency. At this pace, 2017 will exceed previous yearly tallies.
Increasing deployments while decreasing transparency: that’s the Presidential way. It worked for Obama for all eight years he was in office. On the way out the door, he made a futile gesture in response to an escalation in civilian deaths — one ignored by the CIA and now granted an executive erasure by the new boss. We, as a nation, kill people based on metadata. And no one at the top feels obligated to hand over any data at all on these killings to the public that’s funding these deaths.