The Trump Administration Is Not Bothering to Estimate Civilian Drone Deaths

Obama's shamefully weak stab at transparency has been abandoned.


Predator Drone
Michaelfitzsimmons / Dreamstime.com

Independent observers are reporting dramatic increases in civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes overseas. But don't expect official numbers anytime soon: The federal government has stopped producing them.

Toward the end of his administration, in response to criticism of the secrecy surrounding his drone assassination program, Barack Obama ordered an annual report detailing how many people the United States had killed in countries, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, where there were no ongoing military interventions. The counts included both enemy combatants and civilian casualties.

The deadline to release the tally for 2017 was on Tuesday, and the Trump administration missed it. The Washington Post reports that the White House may rescind or revise Obama's executive order, which is currently under review.

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wonders if Trump wants to hide the numbers because of the dramatic increases in civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq that have been reported by the nonprofit project Airwars. Airwars tracks civilian deaths and "friendly fire" casualties in Syria inflicted by Russian and Turkish strikes as well as U.S.-led coalition forces. In 2017, Airwars reported a dramatic increase—more than 200 percent—in civilian fatalities in Syria. The organization estimates that somewhere between 3,900 and 6,100 noncombatants were killed in Syrian strikes by coalition forces in 2017. Airwars noted a drop in civilian kills by Russian forces as they started withdrawing last year. It estimated that between 2,700 and 4,000 civilians were killed in Russian strikes last year, compared to 6,100-8,500 in 2016.

Contrary to what Drum implies, those numbers would not have been included in the report Obama ordered, which was limited to civilian deaths in countries where the United States was not engaged in direct military action. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were all omitted.

The two reports published by the Obama administration were incomplete in other respects as well. Observers said the first report, which was released on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend in 2016, understated the number of civilian deaths in the countries it covered. The second report, released in January 2017, claimed just one civilian had been killed in U.S. drone strikes in these countries during 2016.

These reports created the illusion of transparency, a common theme of the Obama administration. The administration fought all demands for disclosures and accountability regarding the use of drones to execute people without trials or oversight from any other branch of government.

The executive order that mandated these reports also included rules of engagement for drone strikes that demanded "near certainty" that civilians would not be harmed when hitting a valid target. If President Trump rescinds the order, it could signal he is not so persnickety.

But the accountability promised by Obama's order was as much an illusion as the transparency. Obama, like George W. Bush, used his the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) as a justification for remote-controlled assassinations. Any rules of engagement were decided entirely by the executive branch.

The Trump administration is now crafting its own rules. If people do not want Trump's military and CIA droning innocent people, they should demand that Congress do something, such as rescinding the long-abused AUMF.