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Trump cancels Obama policy of reporting drone strike deaths

NBC News logo NBC News 3/6/2019 Ken Dilanian and Courtney Kube
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In the latest step toward rolling back Obama-era rules for targeted killings, President Donald Trump will no longer require U.S. intelligence officials to publicly disclose the numbers of people killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones.

Trump ended the reporting requirement by signing an executive order Wednesday. The move had been expected since the administration last year failed to release an annual accounting of civilian and enemy casualties required under an order signed in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama.

The order signed by Trump revokes a specific requirement that the administration release an unclassified summary of "the number of strikes undertaken by the United States Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities, as well as assessments of combatant and non combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, among other information."

President Obama dramatically expanded the use of targeted strikes with drones against al Qaeda and later ISIS targets. He also sought to put in place a set of rules designed to promote accountability and encourage policy-makers to minimize civilian casualties. Critics said those rules placed unwarranted constraints on counter terrorism operatives.

a group of people standing around a plane: Contract workers load a Hellfire missile onto a U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region on Jan.7, 2016. © John Moore Contract workers load a Hellfire missile onto a U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region on Jan.7, 2016. Among the rules was a requirement that there be a "near certainty" of no civilian casualties before the CIA launched a strike. That rule did not apply in war zones, where the standard is less strict. It’s unclear whether that rule remains in place.

The reporting requirement was the first-ever effort by the U.S. government to account for how many people have been killed in targeted strikes in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Obama’s first report in 2016 said the U.S. launched 473 strikes from Jan. 20, 2009 until Dec. 31, 2015, killing 2,372 to 2,581 combatants and 64 to 116 noncombatants.

Outside groups have much higher estimates for the death toll in American drone strikes.

That requirement is now repealed.

Trump’s order does not affect a separate law Congress passed last year requiring the Defense Department to provide Congress a report of civilian casualties through air strikes in war zones. But that does not apply to many areas where CIA drone strikes take place.

Under Trump, CIA drone strikes have not reached the level they did in the early Obama years, when the agency was pummeling targets in Pakistan on a weekly basis.

But in 2017 there were a record 156 counter terrorism strikes in Yemen and Somalia, according to Long War Journal, a web site that tracks the attacks through credible U.S. and foreign media reports.

Last year, that number fell to 82, the web site reported.

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