President Trump has revoked a 2016 requirement that the intelligence community report annually on how many civilians were killed in U.S. strikes against terrorists in areas where the U.S. is not engaged in active hostilities.
Trump on Wednesday revoked Section 3 of Executive Order 13732, which required the director of national intelligence or other official to obtain information on the number of U.S. strikes against terrorist targets outside active combat zones.
That order, which was signed by President Obama July 1, 2016, also required assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths from those strikes, as well as the release of an unclassified summary of that information by May 1 of each year.
But it appears the order will not spell the end of all reporting on civilian casualties.
In a statement, Navy Commander Candice Tresch, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said DoD is still required, by Section 1057 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, to submit a report on civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations. The next such report, which will cover fiscal 2018, is scheduled to be released May 1, Tresch said.
Other portions of the 2016 executive order, which required DoD to take steps to minimize civilian casualties, are still in effect, Tresch said. That order required agencies to train personnel on how to protect civilians and reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, use intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems to improve battlespace awareness and reduce the risk to civilians, and investigate possible civilian casualty incidents and take responsibility when warranted, among other provisions.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, blasted Trump’s order, saying there is “simply no justification” to cancel the intelligence community’s civilian casualty report. Schiff said he plans to make this reporting mandatory as part of this year’s Intelligence Authorization Act.
“The requirement put in place by the Obama administration in 2016 to issue a report on civilian casualties represented an important measure of transparency, and our commitment to holding ourselves accountable,” Schiff said. “The Trump administration’s failure to issue the report required under the executive order in 2018, and now to withdraw the requirement altogether is a troubling retreat from transparency.”
Government transparency advocates also expressed their concern about the order.
“It’s a pretty troubling sign that the administration is not very concerned about being transparent, and about accountability for civilian casualties as a result of U.S. actions overseas,” said Emily Manna, an analyst for Open the Government. “It’s a continuation of a trend [of] a serious decline of transparency that we’ve seen from this administration — from what was already a really limited amount of transparency from the Obama administration, by the way.”
Manna said the primary effect of the new executive order will be less transparency on non-military airstrikes conducted by the CIA in places where the U.S. is not engaged in active hostilities. That could include nations such as Somalia, Yemen, Niger and Pakistan, Manna said.
“If the CIA kills someone, how would we find out about that? Seek recourse? These are real concerns,” Manna said.
Chris Woods, director of Airwars — a London-based nonprofit that tracks and archives airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya — also expressed concerns about transparency, but said the changes still leave in place important measures to protect civilian populations.
“While President Trump’s actions are clearly a blow to transparency and accountability for U.S. actions in unconventional theaters, elsewhere key civilian harm mitigation measures appear to remain in place,” Woods said.
Trump’s executive order also restates the reporting requirements of Section 1057 of the 2018 NDAA, and the requirement in Section 1062 of the 2019 NDAA expanding the scope of the civilian casualty report. But it also highlights that the 2018 NDAA allows for a classified annex to be included in the unclassified civilian casualty report. It further notes that the 2019 NDAA says the civilian casualty report must be made public — unless the Secretary of Defense certifies its publication “would pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States.”
Manna said there is a risk the administration could possibly use those provisions to restrict some civilian casualty information from military strikes, that may have been released in previous years. That would be especially concerning as the pace of airstrikes increases, she said.
“There is a real concern that the Pentagon and the White House are interested in reporting less information to the public,” Manna said.
Tresch said the Defense Department’s commitment to limiting civilian casualties, and the scope of its civilian casualty reporting, remains unchanged.
“Minimizing civilian casualties and being transparent in our reporting furthers our mission objectives,” Tresch said in an email. “It helps maintain the support of partner governments and enhances the legitimacy and sustainability of U.S. operations critical to our national security.”
Tresch said the unclassified summary from last year’s report included statistics on “credible reports” of civilians who were injured or killed due to military operations, as well as a description of how the Pentagon processes civilian casualty reports and a summary of military operations involving confirmed civilian casualty reports.
“Including a classified annex allows DoD to share information within the U.S. government, while limiting the ability of enemies to employ counter tactics and procedures to purposefully jeopardize civilian lives as a military tactic,” Tresch said.
The Pentagon last month released a report — begun by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and carried out by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford — that concluded it should improve how it identifies and measures civilian casualties, including by collaborating more with humanitarian groups. The report also called for declassifying investigations into civilian casualties, when appropriate, investing in tools to help ground force commanders develop better situational awareness, and standardizing how combatant commands address wrongdoing.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.