The head of the U.S. intelligence community is no longer required to publish an annual report detailing the number of civilians and enemy combatants killed in U.S. drone strikes abroad.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday revoking the reporting requirement, which had been implemented in the Obama administration’s final year.
Section 3 of Executive Order 13732 made it a requirement for the director of national intelligence (DNI) to make public, on the first of each May, an unclassified summary of “combatant and non-combatant deaths” resulting from the strikes.
The order, which calls civilian deaths a “tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force,” states that minimising such casualties is key to maintaining the support of “partner governments and vulnerable populations,” and further helps to “enhance the legitimacy and sustainability” of U.S. operations critical to national security.
Last year, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had simply ignored the order.
The National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2018 fiscal year set up a similar obligation for the secretary of defence to report the number of civilians killed by drones to congressional defence committees each year. The bill was expanded for 2019 to say that the casualty report “shall be made available to the public at the same time it is submitted to Congress,” unless the secretary of defence certifies that doing so “poses a threat to the national security interests of the United States.”
Wednesday’s executive order has no effect on the NDAA’s reporting requirements.
Nonpartisan think-tank New America reported last month that, as compared to the previous administration, Trump had tripled the number of strikes in Somalia in a quarter of the time. In Yemen, where the U.S. has been fighting al-Qaida for well over a decade, Obama racked up 184 strikes over his eight years in office; Trump racked up about half that number in only two.
The Associated Press reported in November that, over the course of a year, around a third of the people killed by drones in Yemen counted as civilian casualties.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The pursuit of better drone technology in the U.S. has sparked outrage among employees of some tech companies contracted by the Pentagon over fears that their contributions may be used in lethal work.
Google’s involvement in Project Maven, which seeks to develop artificial intelligence for analysing drone footage, was first reported by Gizmodo last March. The subsequent backlash among Google employees, around a dozen of whom resigned in protest, ultimately pressured the company not to renew its Maven contract with the Pentagon.