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.

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Comments on “Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama's Last-Minute Drone Strike Reporting Requirements”

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TDR says:

Re: An "acquired taste"

No kidding. People talk about the Nazis, but with the help of the CIA, the US government since the end of WWII has been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of 20-30 million people around the world across almost 40 countries. And that was as of 2007. It’s probably even higher by now. The amount of death the Nazis caused is nothing compared to what the US has done over the past 80 years or so. It’s 4 to 6 times higher at least. The Godwin rule should probably be adjusted to be about the US, not the Nazis, in light of that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: An "acquired taste"

I mean… the upper end of that range is about the middle of the range of the number of deaths Nazi Germany was responsible for… it’s a bit difficult (and by that I mean, would take a lot more research than I’m willing to put in) to estimate due to contributions by Italy in Europe and Japan in overseas European holdings, as well as backing out Soviet casualties prior to Germany declaring war on them, but ~30 million is a fairly reasonable estimate.

TDR says:

Re: Re: Re: An "acquired taste"

I was comparing it to the 6 million figure from the holocaust, which is what most people tend to think of when they think of Nazis. Even if you’re right, it still doesn’t make the US any better. If they really wanted to be on the right side of things, they should never have allowed alphabet agencies like the CIA to exist in the first place and kept an extremely tight rein on the military-industrial complex.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 An "acquired taste"

It’s still a horrible comparison. You’re judging direct and indirect deaths over 80 years to the direct deaths caused by WWII over 5 years, and then saying the U.S. is as bad as the Nazis.

It’s okay to say the CIA is bad without trying to make a bragging game out of it or comparisons to Hitler, and the U.S. was pretty good at killing people before the CIA even existed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here’s a question for you.

Given the simple fact that there are evil people out there who need killing–and anyone who would deny this needs to go away while the adults are talking–the question to ask is, what’s the better way to do it? By American citizens in harm’s way in the attempt to take them down, or by using drones, which can accomplish the job without putting our people on the line and risking death or lifelong injury to them?

Especially with the utter mess that is the VA’s care of disabled veterans, anything that keeps us from having to feed more people into the system is a win in my books.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Given the simple fact that there are evil people out there who need killing–and anyone who would deny this needs to go away while the adults are talking

So what logical fallacy is this? Proof by assertion? Argument from authority, where the authority is himself? Psychologist’s fallacy – an observer presupposes the objectivity of their own perspective when analyzing a behavioral event? Begging the question?

When you have stated that you are not willing to accept that your conclusions could possibly be challenged, I guess there is no point in responding to the rest of your comment either.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Why the Drone Distinction?

I’ve never understood all the hand-wringing over drones. It’s the attacks one should be concerned about, not the delivery method.

There’s absolutely no difference between a drone dropping a bomb on a target and a fighter jet piloted by a person dropping that exact same bomb on that exact same target. The damage is the same and the danger to innocents is the same.

Yet people who are outraged over drone attacks don’t seem to be anywhere near as worked up about fighter sorties.

If the target is legitimate, then who cares whether the ordnance is delivered by a drone controlled by a specialist in an office in Nevada, or an F-16 piloted by an airman in Syria?

And if the target is not legitimate, it doesn’t make it any better or worse if the bomb is delivered via drone vs plane.

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