(March 7, 2019) — After seven years spent presiding over many hundreds of secretive, extrajudicial CIA killings, President Barack Obama signed a 2016 executive order intended to increase transparency and reduce the “tragic” deaths of civilians. The order required the release each May 1 of the number of drone strikes undertaken by the United States “against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities,” along with “assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths.”
In theory, the American public would finally know how many innocents were being killed outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, stoking anti-American sentiment and the possibility of blowback in multiple countries where no war was declared.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump rescinded that short-lived reporting requirement. As Charlie Savage observed in The New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s revocation of the disclosure rule amounted to a belated acknowledgment that his administration had already changed the Obama policy in practice: The director of national intelligence never put out a report about bystander casualties in 2017.” Although the Pentagon is still required by statute to disclose civilian casualties from its ongoing combat operations, Savage explained, that law doesn’t cover lethal CIA drone strikes.
The legislative branch has all but abdicated its war powers, and lawmakers on both sides have let successive presidents preside over secret kill lists. Without the reporting order in place, there is no way for the public to know what the Trump administration is up to, theoretically in its name.
Subjecting any president to so little accountability is imprudent. And Trump warrants particular mistrust, given his habit of surrounding himself with unscrupulous individuals and statements he has made on the use of lethal force, e.g., “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement asserting “the need for Congress to make this reporting mandatory.” The Democrat tried to force an increase in transparency under Obama too.
What he proposes would be better than nothing.
It is nevertheless disheartening––as a longtime critic of America’s program of lethal drone strikes––to assess the state of the policy debate in Washington, D.C.
The president wants the power to kill people in secret far from any battlefield without having to disclose how often he exercises it or how many innocents die.
The Democratic Party purports to regard him as a morally depraved, power-hungry opportunist who lacks wisdom, judgment, and restraint, rendering him unfit for high office. But it won’t push to strip him of the ability to unilaterally kill an indeterminate number of people in various countries where we are not at war. It will merely try to force him to disclose the body count once a year. And it likely doesn’t have the votes in Congress to accomplish even that.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic,where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.