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Trump just revoked an Obama-era reporting requirement about civilian drone strike casualties. While it lacked full transparency, it was better than the renewed secrecy that will surround the CIA’s drone war program now

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama era executive order that requires the government to publish estimates of the number of civilian casualties that result from drone strikes. President Obama had signed this order towards the end of his presidency, saying that it would provide for more transparency and restraint in U.S. efforts to go after presumed terrorists, primarily in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Trump’s National Security Council, however, argued that the rescinded order duplicates a 2016 law that already requires civilian casualty counts from drone strikes.

Joining me now to discuss the consequences of the Trump administration revoking this executive order is Professor Daniel Brunstetter. He is associate professor in political science at the University of California Irvine, and has published books on the ethics of war. Thanks for joining us today, Daniel.

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: Thank you for having me back.

GREG WILPERT: So what would you say are the most immediate consequences of Trump having revoked the Obama era executive order on providing civilian casualty counts from drone strikes?

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: I think, Greg, in order to answer that question we first need to understand exactly what Obama’s law, or his executive order, asked for. And I think the main thing to realize here is that Obama was asking for selective transparency, not full transparency. What Obama was looking for was this kind of transparency to keep his administration, to the extent possible, in check on the potential for civilian casualties in drone strikes. Now, these are not drone strikes taken by the military, but by the CIA outside the hot battlefield.

When Obama finally did release his report, what he did is he released the report on a number of strikes and casualties, both civilian and combatant, across his tenure; so from 2009 to roughly 2015, when I think the report was released. That shows some sense of transparency. But what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t necessarily show the information on each of the individual strikes, nor does it allow us to track the strikes across the years to see patterns.

And the last thing that the executive order did is it further institutionalized what is a controversial policy. It’s important to realize that these strikes outside the hot battlefield are considered by some, including Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, to be against international law. So the executive order was a step towards further institutionalizing that.

Now, what did Trump’s rebuke of this order do? Well, on the one hand, it brings us back to where we were under Obama in his first term, when there was very little transparency at all, or, in fact, no transparency. And so we don’t know when the strikes are taking place, how many casualties they are, based on government assessments. Trump has already changed the targeting measures. Obama in his later term had called for more restrictive measures. Obama wanted to only strike when there was near certainty of no civilians being present. Trump has changed that criterion to reasonable certainty, which is a difference. And by taking away the requirement to report civilian casualties, it’s insulating the American public one greater layer from what’s actually happening in our name.

GREG WILPERT: So what’s your response to the Trump administration’s argument that the 2016 law already covers civilian casualty counts?

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: So, the Trump administration said that it was superfluous and that it distracts intelligence officials from their primary mission. Superfluous. I believe the Trump administration was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act, or the NDAAA, which requires that the U.S. government report all military activities across the globe per year, and give an account of those activities, and not just drone strikes.

So on the one hand there is this reporting of drone strikes within the NDAA, but by rescinding Obama’s executive order we lose the focus on the more controversial drone program. And I think that that focus is really important. And it’s not a purely redundant activity, because it allows us to really engage with these controversial strikes. And to an extent that we engage with them and the public has access to this information, then it acts as a check of restraint on what the government might be able to do. Public opinion polls suggest that the U.S. public is highly favorable of drone strikes, except when information on civilian casualties is released.

GREG WILPERT: So do you expect, then, there to be an increase in civilian casualties, and in drone strikes in general, now that this order has been revoked?

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: I think that that’s an important question to ask. It will be difficult for us to monitor that, given that the government is not going to release this data. We can follow other agencies that do track them, but it would be important to be able to compare those numbers to what the government is saying.

What I think that this rescinding of the Obama-era executive order is it’s another step in insulating the U.S. public from the secret drone program, the CIA program. It goes hand in hand with the Trump administration’s loosening of the standards under the Obama era which served as a restrictive standards. The challenge now becomes if the gloves are off, as it were, what will stop the U.S. from using drones anywhere it wants to? This, again, isn’t something new. It takes us back to where we were under the Obama administration in around 2010, when Obama was acting under this lack of transparency, and conducted in Pakistan roughly one strike every three days.

GREG WILPERT: Now, there’s been a persistent complaint, though, that even during after the Obama administration released its report, that its casualty counts were grossly underestimating the number of casualties. For example, according to the first Obama report–actually the only one, probably–there were between 64 and 116 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2015. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been tracking drone strikes, counted between 256 and 633 for Pakistan alone. So I mean, how important are these accounts, anyway, considering that the government has been totally–I mean, by a factor of up to five or more–underestimating the number of casualties?

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: That raises some really important questions, this discrepancy of numbers. First of all, let me reiterate that the steps that Obama took are steps towards greater transparency, but certainly not full transparency. One of the challenges with the Obama report, as I mentioned earlier, is it gives just the total number, and it doesn’t allow us to examine each individual strike and the rationale behind each individual strike. Obama, according to the New York Times at one point, had a controversial method of counting combatants, and these numbers don’t tell us how they decided who a combatant was.

And the other thing to look at is the range. By giving a range of 64 to 116 noncombatants killed, the administration is guessing. It doesn’t know exactly how many were killed, and that’s problematic when you’re trying to avoid civilian casualties. And the same for its estimates on the number of combatants killed. Remember that it’s reporting both combatants and noncombatants.

And so why is there this discrepancy? Members of the Obama administration would say that they have better data then because they’re able to see the camera images, and track. On the other hand, the Long War Journal, for example, or the Bureau of Investigation, they have people on the ground and they’re tracking various different reports.

The important thing to remember is that these are human lives that are lost, and by simply just reporting them as numbers we’re we’re missing something greater about the tragedy of their loss. And it might be important, also, to think not just in terms of civilian deaths, but more broadly civilian harm that is the impact of living under drones. You can see in various different reports by human rights organizations the impact beyond simply the death of noncombatants; what this does to children, families, and to people going about their daily lives. And as you take away transparency and take away the restraints, you risk going back to a time when drones are flying over these areas of Somalia or Yemen or parts of Pakistan, and causing trauma even if they don’t strike.

GREG WILPERT: Now, finally, how does the usage of drone strikes under Trump compare to that under Obama? And what do we know so far about the number of civilian deaths? I know that this information isn’t readily accessible, but according to the best information that we have so far, what do we know?

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: So I think the best way to look at this is to look at it in where the strikes are taking place. So if you look at the Obama administration’s strikes in Pakistan. So I mentioned earlier in 2010 it was at a high of about one drone strike every three days during that time period. That steadily decreased over the years to–in 2010 there were 128 strikes, roughly. By 2016 there were three. And that was the the final year of Obama’s administration. In Pakistan, under the Trump administration, there was five in 2017 and only one in 2018. So we see a continued decrease in strikes there.

On the other hand, there is a significant uptake in the number of strikes under the Trump administration in Yemen. Under Obama in 2016 there were 38, but under the Trump administration there were over 130 in 2017, which is a significant jump; three times of the previous year. And the same sort of jump can be seen, or a similar jump can be seen, in Somalia. Under Obama there were 14 in 2016. Under Trump in 2017, 35; in 2018 roughly 32.

So I think what we’re seeing is that the Trump administration is taking the drone fight elsewhere. Unfortunately, we don’t really have accurate numbers on civilian casualties. Obama in his tenure claimed that civilian casualties were decreasing over the years, and were in single digits or zero in some years. I don’t know if that trend will hold under the Trump administration given the lack of transparency–the return to a lack of transparency–and the loosening of restraints that Obama had made possible.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Daniel Brunstetter, associate professor in political science at UC Irvine. Thanks again, Daniel, for having joined us today.

DANIEL BRUNSTETTER: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.