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 three 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 minimizing 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.
The Washington Post reported last year that the Trump administration had simply ignored the order altogether. Now it doesn’t have to.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) set up a similar obligation for the secretary of defense to report the number of civilians killed by drones to congressional defense committees each year. The bill was expanded the following year 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 defense 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; though as for what constitutes a “threat” to national security, the bill offers no specificity.
Nonpartisan think-tank New America reported last month that, compared to Obama, Trump has already tripled the number of drone strikes in Somalia, even though he’s only been in office for 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 during his eight years in office; Trump, meanwhile, racked up about half that number in only two years.
The Associated Press reported in November that, over the course of a year, around a third of the people killed by drones in Yemen were civilians.
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, fearful that their contributions may be used in lethal work.
Google’s involvement in Project Maven, which seeks to develop artificial intelligence for analyzing drone footage, was first reported by Gizmodo last March. The subsequent backlash from Google employees—around a dozen of whom resigned in protest—ultimately pushed the company not to renew its Maven contract with the Pentagon.