WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Wednesday weakened a rule that required the government to annually make public its estimates of civilian bystanders killed in airstrikes outside conventional war zones — increasing the secrecy that cloaks one of the most contentious aspects of the fight against terrorists.
In an executive order, Trump revoked a disclosure requirement that President Barack Obama imposed in July 2016. The change was the latest in a series of ways that Trump has dismantled the architecture that Obama erected over time to constrain the use of drone strikes and commando raids targeting militants in places like tribal Pakistan and rural Yemen.
But Trump’s executive order noted that since 2016, Congress has enacted a law that separately requires the Pentagon to issue annual reports about bystander deaths from all of its operations, including in conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Syria.
Citing that law, the National Security Council said in a statement that the Obama-era rule amounted to “superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.”
Still, the law requiring disclosure of bystander deaths covers only the Department of Defence’s operations. It does not extend to airstrikes by the CIA, which has carried out its own drone campaign targeting terrorism suspects in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Rita Siemion, international legal counsel at Human Rights First, a non-profit advocacy group, criticised the Trump administration’s move.
“It’s a major step backwards that’s out of touch with what the DOD is doing and what Congress has been focused on,” she said.
The revocation of the disclosure rule joins other steps Trump has taken since becoming president to dismantle constraints Obama had imposed on counterterrorism operations.
Soon after taking office, Trump quietly deemed large swaths of Yemen and Somalia to be “areas of active hostilities” subject to war-zone rules. In battle, it can be lawful to carry out a strike at a military target, knowing that some nearby civilians may die as a side consequence, so long as the collateral damage is deemed to be necessary and proportionate.
And later in 2017, Trump rescinded a set of rules, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, that the Obama administration had imposed on counterterrorism operations away from hot battlefields. Those limits included a requirement that targets of kill missions by the military and the CIA be limited to high-level militants rather than foot-soldier militants without any special training or leadership role, and a requirement for high-level, inter-agency vetting of proposed attacks.
Still, Trump’s changes in 2017 left in place a requirement that strikes away from conventional war zones take place only when military officers had “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. Similarly, his executive order on Wednesday left in place other aspects of Obama’s directive that require the government to make a priority of preventing civilian casualties.
“The United States government is fully committed to complying with its obligations under the law of armed conflict, minimising, to the greatest extent possible, civilian casualties, and acknowledging responsibility when they unfortunately occur during military operations,” the National Security Council statement said.
In a sense, Trump’s revocation of the disclosure rule amounted to a belated acknowledgement that his administration had already changed the Obama policy in practice: The director of national intelligence never put out a report about bystander casualties in 2017, even though the Obama-era order requiring one remained on the books last year, when the report was due out.
— New York Times