Trump administration removes policy requiring transparency relating to civilian drone deaths

President Donald Trump’s administration has reversed an Obama era policy requiring US intelligence services to report the number of civilians killed by American drones.

On March 6, Trump signed an executive order revoking the requirement for intelligence agencies to publicly announce the number of non-combatants killed by US drone strikes or other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones.

The justification for this move is that Congress has already passed new legislation on the reporting of civilian casualties and Obama’s executive order is therefore redundant. The Trump administration labelled Obama’s executive order as “superfluous” and “distracting” to intelligence agencies according to the BBC.

The problem with that argument is that the Congressional legislation only requires reporting on civilians deaths for military operations. Many US drone strikes occur in non-military zones. This means that should there be a US assassination attempt on, say, a Pakistani warlord, and the Hellfire missile accidentally kills 20 women and children, the Trump administration will be under no obligation to make that information known to the public.

Critics of the move argue that the lack of transparency will allow the likes of the CIA to carry out their “targetted killing program” with no accountability for the toll paid by innocent civilians.

How drone strikes work?

For those not in the know, the US military has an extensive arsenal of weaponised UAVs that are used for military operations and assassination around the world. The Pentagon is said to have some 7000 drones in total and the CIA has around 30 Predator and Reaper drones.

Predator drones range in size but one of the most well-known models, pictured below is the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone. It is 27 feet long (8.22 m), 6.9 feet high (2.1 m) and has a relatively moderate maximum travel speed of 135 mph (217 kph).  It can carry a 1100 lb (500 kg) payload and fly for periods of up to 24 hours.

Most often, the pilot of these drones is not in the country the drone is in operation. Rather, they are typically sitting at a desk chair at a warehouse somewhere in America, such as one base located in Syracuse, New York. The pilot has a range of computer screens in front of him, as well as instruments, maps, a video feed and a joystick through which he controls the drone. The pilot is often tasked with monitoring a site where a suspected terrorist or target on the US “kill list” is located.

If the target is positively identified and the pilot gets the go-ahead, they push a button and a laser-guided missile will fire at the targets.

A US Predator drone in action

Why this should be a concern

One of the enduring blights on former President Obama’s legacy was the expansion of the drone strike program, used to take out America’s enemies. Obama’s administration was notoriously secretive about the use of drone strikes, only admitting to the program’s existence in 2013. During the eight years Obama was in charge, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, there were a total of  542 drone strikes authorised by Obama which killed an estimated 3797 people, including 342 civilians. Those are the official numbers but some human rights have suggested that the US often reports the dead in blast zone as “enemy combatants,” when they may simply be innocents caught in the crossfire.

Trump took Obama’s pattern on secreacy around drone strikes and ran with it. We brought you a story at the beginning of last year showing that in just the first seven months of his Presidency, more civilians were killed that during the entire eight years of Obama.

Although the monitoring process before a drone strike is supposed to minimize the chance of the missile accidentally killing non-intended targets, we know that civilians are often accidentally killed. Communities whose relatives or loved ones are suddenly and without warning, killed by a United States bomb often, understandably, turn against America. According to a former State Department official, for every drone strike, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies.

Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA told ThinkProgress that when civilian deaths aren’t reported, they aren’t investigated. And if they aren’t investigated, then mistakes can never be highlighted, and the United States will never learn from its mistakes.

The Trump administration is likely to receive pushback from Congress on this move, now that it is under Democratic control.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight featured an excellent segment on US drone warfare a few years back. You can check that out below:

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