Hina Shamsi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
In an executive order last week, President Trump ended a requirement for the government to tell the public its official count of civilians killed by U.S. military and CIA lethal strikes in countries where we are not at war. The effect is that our government will continue killing people abroad with less oversight and no accountability.
The reporting requirement, put in place by President Barack Obama, had many shortcomings, but it was still valuable. We know, for example, that the government says 64 to 116 civilians were killed by strikes in noncombat zones between 2011 and 2015, though credible media and human rights groups say the actual number is likely much higher. Trump has now also ended the government’s commitment to explaining these discrepancies.
The Trump administration justified its decision to end such reporting by arguing that transparency reports are duplicative because the military is required to issue similar reports. But that’s not completely true, as military figures won’t include civilian deaths from CIA strikes.
Some in Congress reacted with alarm to Trump’s order, and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that he will seek to reimpose the transparency requirement with legislation. This is a necessary step but only an initial one, because this country desperately needs to reckon with and seek an end to the president’s claimed unilateral authority to kill terrorism suspects in parts of the world where we are not at war.
Proponents argue that these airstrikes reduce risk to U.S. forces and keep the United States from being drawn into actual or worsening wars. But without public accountability about the costs and consequences of the program, we can’t take that at face value. Nor can we accept an equation that minimizes the deaths of civilians or ignores perspectives from people in affected countries.
It’s encouraging that some former government officials and policymakers of both parties recognize that the U.S. lethal program is morally and legally fraught. Yet virtually all policy proposals to fix it start with a desire to maintain the president’s authority to order the killings, and they are always defined by counterterrorism, even though what’s happening on the ground is often domestic or regional conflicts unrelated to terrorism against the United States.
When the U.S. drone program began with a 2002 strike in Yemen, it was supposed to be exceptional and limited, with “kill lists” targeting alleged high-level militants. But as lethal strikes expanded in intensity and geographic scope, so, too, did the categories of people who could be killed. Our government’s desire to maintain the option of lethal force resulted in more killings based on suspicion and without any judicial process. And the CIA essentially morphed into a paramilitary killing organization, without even the imperfect oversight that is in place for the military.
Those affected by these strikes may be faceless to the American public, but they are not to the victims and their families. Most of them reside in majority-Muslim countries, where the programs are understandably resented and contribute to destabilization.
Any reckoning for a lethal program must focus on such costs in human life, taxpayer money and the rule of law. But the government intentionally makes this difficult by limiting information to the public.
We know lethal strikes have taken place in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Niger and elsewhere — all without congressional authorization or adequate oversight. But we do not know exactly how many civilians and terrorism suspects have been killed since 2002, though independent groups estimate that many thousands have died, including many hundreds of civilians — at least.
Nor do we know the secret rules Trump uses to determine who will die. By the end of the Obama administration, which vastly expanded the lethal program, lawsuits forced the government to disclose the legal and bureaucratic infrastructure that it created to justify killings in “outside areas of active hostilities.”
International law prohibits the use of lethal force against civilians outside of armed conflict, except in very narrow circumstances: as a last resort to prevent an imminent attack. And the Constitution prohibits killing citizens without due process. But the Obama administration expanded its lethal program under a cherry-picked mishmash of legal frameworks with a gloss of policy safeguards aimed at limiting harm to civilians.
The Trump era has made clear just how vulnerable policy limits are and how dangerous it is when a president claims legal authority to kill in secret. In 2017, Trump lifted a key policy constraint limiting lethal strikes to “high-level militants” who pose “a continuing and imminent threat to Americans.” He also reportedly declared that parts of Yemen and Somalia were exempt from the meager remaining limits. The result? The United States is killing more low-level suspects, regardless of whether the government has reason to believe they pose a threat to the United States.
The president also gave the CIA more authority to carry out strikes, and the agency embraced it by building a new base for drones in Niger.
This is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. Trump may have pledged to end “endless wars,” but he and other politicians have instead doubled down on armed actions and have repudiated diplomatic solutions. As a result, more civilians will die, and the instability and violence our government claims to abhor will continue.
Now, more than ever, we need Congress to act. Only with greater pressure can we end our nation’s deadly addiction to a war-based foreign policy.