- US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that ends the mandatory reporting of civilian deaths from US air strikes outside of combat zones.
- Rights groups criticized the removal of the Obama-era requirement, calling it "deeply wrong and dangerous for public accountability."
- Reports showed up to 117 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2016. The Trump administration did not release a 2017 report.
US President Donald Trump quietly signed an executive to change how the government reports deaths from its drones which means the US can now kill thousands of civilians in secret.
Trump signed the executive order on Wednesday, revoking an Obama-era requirement for the Director of National Intelligence to release an annual report of the number of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in non-combat areas around the world.
Such areas include parts of Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.
The measure was introduced by President Barack Obama in 2016 as he faced pressure to be more transparent about the increased use of drones.
The government will continue to report deaths in "areas of active hostilities" like Iraq and Syria.
Previous reported counted as many as 117 civilian deaths outside of these areas between 2009 and 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 claim these figures do not show the whole picture.
SS MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images
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, international legal counsel for the group Human Rights First, told Politco.
Hina Shamsi, 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, a Democrat and the chairs of 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 that the government is fully committed to "minimizing — to the greatest extent possible — civilian causalities and acknowledging responsibility when they unfortunately occur during military operations."
According to the Director of National Intelligence’s annual reports, which have been released annually since 2016, there were between 64 and 116 civilian deaths from US drone strikes in non-combat zones between 2011 and 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.
The majority of civilian deaths from US drones occur in combat areas: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 769 and 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.
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 t0 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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