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The Trump Administration Is Not Bothering to Estimate Civilian Drone Deaths

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

Predator DroneMichaelfitzsimmons / Dreamstime.comIndependent 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.

Photo Credit: Michaelfitzsimmons / Dreamstime.com

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  • Hugh Akston||

    It would be a shame if Trump abandoned Obama's transparency policy. We were just one insulting report full of half-truths away from convincing the American people of the immorality of undeclared wars fought by flying killer robots.

  • colorblindkid||

    Don't forget about the single most terrifying thing the government has done in my lifetime:

    Assassinate an American citizen without due process outside a war zone who posed no imminent threat, using a secret government kill list.

    That is a far worse precedent, in my mind, than waterboarding stateless foreign fighters or anything else Clinton or the Bush's did.

    But Obama got a Nobel Peace Prize and was a constitutional expert.

  • Just Say'n||

    Remember when Eric Holder gave a speech at Northwestern University justifying the president's authority to kill American citizens overseas without any oversight from Congress or the judiciary? There were no protests or attempts to silence Holder at Northwestern, which should tell you how much the Left cares about this issue.

    Trump is a continuation of the same failed and illegal foreign policy. He's not a change agent. He's the status quo

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Trump is worse than Obama because he does not have a Nobel like Obama does.

  • colorblindkid||

    And Trump says mean things to brave and courageous American journalists who risk their lives everyday by reporting on him, which basically makes him worse than Saddam Hussein.

  • Tony||

    He's worse because he kills more civilians, just as he promised in his campaign.

  • Just Say'n||

    You realize this is why people mock you when you pretend to be against war, right?

  • Tony||

    Because I'm against the people who always get more people killed in war?

  • Just Say'n||

    I forgot that President Obama's drones were woke af and checked their aerial privilege before they dropped bombs on wedding parties.

    Like a good progressive you're OK with murder, so long as it's your team and they allow transgender troops to murder too. For equality, of course.

    People who actually oppose war oppose killer air robots killing civilians regardless of who is in office.

  • Tony||

    You either get a Democrat or a Republican in the Oval Office. I never said Obama was perfect and I'd be a fool to do so. I simply said he kills fewer civilians than Trump.

  • Just Say'n||

    "I simply said he kills fewer civilians than Trump."

    And you know this how, Trust Fund? I presume you didn't read the article.

    And I love how senseless murder can be quantified. "Well, this guy only killed 1,000 civilians, while this guy killed 10,000". What a moronic proposition that highlights the abject moral relativism and stupidity that defines progressivism.

  • Tony||

    So are you claiming that there is a third possibility that results in no bombing and that you're extra virtuous for endorsing that?

  • Just Say'n||

    I don't know. Maybe oppose senseless war regardless of whether or not your guy is in office? And don't applaud propaganda that justifies senseless conflict (ie. Russia fever dreams)?

    This may surprise you, but during the Iraq War I foolishly thought that Democrats were actually anti-war and I voted for them. I will never make that foolish mistake again.

  • Tony||

    Anti-dumb war I believe is the current platform. You're gonna get a version of the US foreign policy establishment either way, except one will handle it dumbly and the other will handle it as well as humanly possible. There are no moral bonus points for avoiding reality. And I still don't know what you're criticizing.

  • Just Say'n||

    "Anti-dumb war I believe is the current platform."

    Your candidate was calling for a no-fly zone over Syria. How much more delusional can you get, Trust Fund?

  • Tony||

    Lame, shallow, Russia-supplied horseshit talking point.

    Yeah, and Trump actually bombed the country. What is your point? I keep asking.

  • Just Say'n||

    Stating your own candidate's position is now "Russia-supplied horseshit"?

    You're not well, Tony. I sincerely hope you seek help

  • Tony||

    You still seem to be faulting me for choosing less death over more death. I don't get it.

    And as you should well know, the best propaganda is based on facts. It works when you believe Hillary was going to be more warlike than Trump despite his clear English campaign promises to the contrary--because you were suckered by talking points.

  • Just Say'n||

    Explain to me how a "no fly zone" would lead to "less death"?

    That's a rather insane take

  • Tony||

    Explain how "I'm going to bomb the shit out of them and their families" does.

    Oh, that didn't get as much play in your brain did it? For whatever reason.

  • BYODB||

    Plus, wasn't it Stalin that said if you kill ten people it's a tragedy but if you kill ten million it's just a statistic? Well, Tony is a socialist, so frankly he should support Trump in his efforts to kill enough people to be forgiven.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tony|5.3.18 @ 3:24PM|#
    He's worse because he kills more civilians, just as he promised in his campaign.


    How do you know? The gov is not counting dead civilians.

  • Tony||

    Reporting on the matter.

    Now make your excuses. Obama's already to blame for starting the whole thing, right? What with his time machine and Dick Cheney whispering technique?

  • BYODB||

    I see, you're not mad about the kills your're mad that the Trump administration isn't lying through their teeth to make you feel better about the senseless killing.

    Nevermind the fact that functionally we have absolutely no way to know which President was 'worse', only that both of them are in fact shit. How you manage to walk away from that thinking one is better or worse than the other is a simple answer; blind partisanship.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    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.

    #BlueWave will put this shit to a screeching halt.

  • colorblindkid||

    Lulz yeah okay. Maybe some odd coalition put together by Rand Paul and Tulsi Gabbard, but surely not a majority.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    That would be a pretty cool ticket.

  • Just Say'n||

    'Would'- both of them?

  • Just Say'n||

    Wyden would probably join in, but only because there's a Republican in the White House now

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Obama under-guessed civilians killed because lying is what politicians do.

    Trump's policy of not lying about civilians deaths, by not even trying to estimate civilian deaths, is worse?

    "Barack Obama ordered an annual report detailing how many people the United States had killed in countries, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya...."
    Fuck Obama and I am sure Trump feels the same way.

    Both Democrats and Republicans want to let presidents run around bombing anything that moves under perpetual AUMF.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Obviously, Trump is the victim here.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • loveconstitution1789||

    To be fair, all politicians are victims to some people.

  • Just Say'n||

    This is not a salient point. We all recognize that Obama's estimates were bunk. But, clearly Trump's estimates are 'yuge' too. Otherwise his administration wouldn't be so hesitant to release even bogus figures

  • BYODB||

    ...except that releasing bogus figures is incredibly simple and doesn't require even a modest reflection of reality, especially if you believe that Trump is an evil lying bastard. I'm not saying no numbers is better, but it's not appreciably worse than 'definitely not true' numbers either.

  • juris imprudent||

    The only problem either party truly has is when the other team's finger is on the button.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ^ This guy gets it.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    ^ So does this one.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    ^ another guy that gets it

  • Just Say'n||

    ^ Why are we pointing up, again?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    ^ because this guy did it.

  • DenverJ||

    You know who else didn't want people to know how many civilians were being killed?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    FDR?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The UN?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Police unions?

  • juris imprudent||

    Thanos?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Caligula?

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    Now that was one funny dude.

  • Tony||

    The producers of recent Superman movies?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Obama?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Vegans, if by civilians we mean rodents ground up in combine harvesters?

  • DenverJ||

    So I'm sitting at the pub seeing lunch and drinking coffee. The drunk next to me keeps staring at my plate. He's really interested in my food. Should I throw a french fry at his head?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Whip out your dick and just stare him down.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Now now, we are not in college any more.

  • DenverJ||

    Eating lunch, not seeing. Come on phone...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Tell your boss to buy his own lunch.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    If you'd eat your lunch instead of just seeing it, you wouldn't have to worry about the drunk next to you staring at it.

    Why do you have to sit there an tease him with your food?

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    This illustrates why I've consistently said libertarians should prefer a Democrat in the White House. I'm not going to pretend there were no black and brown bodies blown up by drones during Obama's presidency. Nor would I pretend a President Hillary Clinton would go 8 full years with a perfect record of zero civilian casualties.

    But this is the key difference: since the Democrats are not racists, we can be sure any deaths that occur due to their foreign policy are honest mistakes. With a white supremacist like Drumpf, on the other hand, we don't have that guarantee. How many drone deaths are currently due to unfortunate collateral damage, and how many are the result of Drumpf's racism and disregard for black and brown lives? It's impossible to say. And I'm extremely uncomfortable with that lack of moral clarity we would have had if Hillary hadn't been cheated out of the Presidency.

  • gormadoc||

    Weak. A proper woke liberal would admit that Democrats are racist, like everybody, but claim that the difference is that they know their own racism and try to engage their unspoken bias and beliefs.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Actually, that's only partly true. Obama is not racist, because in a white supremacist country like the US, only white people can be. Regardless of the fact that he became President, Obama is a POC and therefore cannot, by definition, be racist.

    Maybe Hillary Clinton retains some of the racist beliefs she learned when she was younger. But compared to a literal white nationalist like Drumpf? It's obvious who the anti-racist candidate was in 2016.

    #StillWithHer

  • Just Say'n||

    Stop. You're getting Tony aroused.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    But Obama is half white.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    #StillInHer

  • DenverJ||

    Jesus Fucking Christ you're stupid.

  • Rhywun||

    #sickofwinning

  • BYODB||

    Are we sure there's an increase in civilian deaths when we already know the official numbers were B.S. before, or do we think that a bunch of journalists might have suddenly woken up from their stupor after Obama left the White House and were surprised to notice that people were still being blown the fuck up years after Bush left office?


    Or are we saying 'lying to us is better than saying nothing'?


    I mean, I know Reason has covered this but the rest of the media hasn't seemed very interested in what's going on in terms of civilian or troop deaths since the Bush era. I guess it's nice that they're awake again, but I'm not so sure that I can count on them to stay that way long enough to actually change anything.

  • Tony||

    Oh you can believe whatever you want to believe. Doesn't even have to be internally consistent, consistent with what you believed yesterday, or remotely logical. This is libertarianism.

    Oh, shit:

    Trump Has Killed More Civilians with Illegal Drone Strikes in 9 Months Than Obama Did in 8 Years

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    So now Tony is hawking Ron Paul.

  • BYODB||

    And the specific reason why you can believe whatever you want is because both parties are utterly uninterested in telling us how many civilians they're killing, and the Press only notices we're doing any bombing when it's a Republican.

  • Tony||

    Seems like you're doing just fine making shit up out of thin air all by yourself.

  • BYODB||

    Oh? So you are saying that Obama's numbers were right on the money? Odd, because you'd be basically the only person saying so.

    I know it irritates you when someone actually manages to be consistent on an issue, but you're a fair-weather anti-war type at best.

    It's always sad to see someone like you tarnish the liberal brand.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tony, you just don't like what is being said.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Jeff Bezos just heaved a yuge sigh of relief.

  • Underzog||

    What? Worrying about some deaths of Msulim terrorist supporters? Eeef them!

    Love and kisses,Underzog

    "There's no ned to fear. Underzog is here"!

    Sing lovbe song at the end of this Ave Maria video
    The Troll Song

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