An unknown toll: U.S. drone program needs transparency, honesty

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President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order that required an annual public report on the U.S. drone program, including the number of civilian casualties.

This decision, made without an explanation, was met with widespread criticism. Limiting transparency, particularly on a military concern as important as drone warfare, is rarely seen as a good thing.

These fears are understandable, but Mr. Trump's decision to rescind the order is not as consequential as people may fear. It must be asked: What purpose did Mr. Obama's original order serve?

It was intended to promote transparency, sure, but being transparent is not necessarily the same as being honest. And the Obama administration's published statistics on drone strikes were far from honest, as the numbers of civilian casualties were routinely misrepresented, according to data from independent organizations like Amnesty International and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

For instance, the BIJ collaborated with the nonpartisan New America think tank and the Long War Journal on an analysis of civilians killed by U.S. drones between 2009 and 2015. The Obama administration had estimated that 473 strikes had killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 “noncombatants" during this period. The independent analysts, however, found records of 528 strikes that killed 4,189 people and approximately 474 civilians.

A major reason for the statistical discrepancy is dubious operational definitions. For example, the U.S. government classifies all “military-aged males" killed by a drone strike as enemy combatants unless and until posthumous evidence proves otherwise. So virtually any man or boy between the ages of 13 and 65 could be considered to be a terrorist under this definition. It is not hard to see how such rules could minimize the reported rate of civilian casualties.

The Trump administration ignored the reporting requirement deadline in 2018, facing no consequences for this inaction. Mr. Obama's executive order would seem to be toothless.

None of this is to say that Mr. Trump's handling of the drone program is acceptable — quite the opposite, in fact. But an executive order was never the right tool to achieve accountability with these deadly weapons.

Congress, so often absent from its oversight duties nowadays, must reassert itself and demand both transparency and honesty in regard to the U.S. drone program. For far too long, this program has been allowed to operate in the shadows, free from the judgment of the American people. But citizens have a right to know what their military is doing and who it is killing.

Congress receives its own report on civilian casualties from the Pentagon and it should make that report public. The numbers may not be wholly accurate, but it would be a more concrete path toward accountability.

Symbolic though it may be, Mr. Trump's decision to rescind the Obama-era order is a step in the wrong direction. But hopefully it motivates Congress to finally move on this issue of deadly importance.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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