Trump quietly rewrote the rules of drone warfare, which means the US can now kill civilians in secret

Mohammed Hamoud/Getty ImagesGraffiti protesting US drone strikes seen in September in Sana’a, Yemen.
  • US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order ending the mandatory reporting of civilian deaths from US airstrikes outside combat zones.
  • Rights groups criticised the removal of the Obama-era requirement, calling the move “deeply wrong and dangerous for public accountability.”
  • Reports showed up to 117 civilian deaths from 2009 to 2016. The Trump administration did not release a 2017 report.

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

Trump signed the order Wednesday, 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, and Pakistan.

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

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


Read more:
Trump inherited Obama’s drone war and has 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 a 2017 report.

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

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

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

But 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. That was the intention of the wording,” Rita Siemion, the international legal counsel for the group Human Rights First, told Politico.


Read more:
US Army soldiers will soon be armed with these game-changing drones that fit in the palm of your hand

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 was “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 that the government was fully committed to “minimising – to the greatest extent possible – civilian causalities and acknowledging responsibility when they unfortunately occur during military operations.”

Questionable accuracy

The director of national intelligence’s reports, which have been 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 the executive order was then still in place.

The figures for each year are released in the May of the following year and so have not been released for 2018.

Most civilian deaths from US drones occur in combat areas: the Bureau 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.

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 Defence 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.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.