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Trump administration alters Obama-era bill on civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes

Residents of the Iraqi city of Mosul carry the bodies of several people killed in airstrikes during fighting between security forces and the Islamic State in March 2017. (Felipe Dana/AP)

The Trump administration has revoked part of an Obama-era executive order mandating an annual accounting of how many civilians have died in military and CIA strikes, reducing the potential for public scrutiny of counterterrorism activities overseas.

The White House said in a statement that the change affected one section of President Barack Obama’s 2016 order on civilian casualties, which was part of an effort to provide a clearer picture of the attacks.

The section that was rescinded required an annual public report tallying how many counterterrorism strikes involving drones or manned aircraft occurred outside war zones, as well as estimating how many civilians were killed.

In a message sent to Capitol Hill shortly before the announcement, the State Department said the report was redundant because Congress had subsequently passed legislation requiring the Defense Department to provide a separate, more exhaustive annual report on civilian casualties resulting from military activities.

“This action eliminates superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission,” the department said in an email.

But the congressionally mandated report covers only military strikes rather than those conducted by the CIA, creating what Larry Lewis, a director at the Center for Naval Analysis and an expert on civilian casualties, called a “transparency gap.”

In recent years, the CIA has carried out fewer counterterrorism strikes in countries such as Pakistan but retains the ability to do so.

“This is a deeply unfortunate decision, not just for transparency and accountability, but also for American national security,” said Joshua Geltzer, who helped produce the 2016 order while serving as a senior counterterrorism official in the Obama White House.

Activists had accused the Obama administration of underreporting the number of civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes but considered the 2016 order a step forward.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch, said in a statement that all executive order requirements related to military efforts to minimize civilian casualties “continue to apply.”

The White House announcement comes as the Pentagon undertakes a major review of its handling of civilian casualties, an effort that resulted from public criticism surrounding a surge in reported civilian deaths during the military’s air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a former Air Force attorney, said reduced transparency about intelligence agencies’ actions “would be deeply concerning, because to the civilians who were killed by strikes, it really doesn’t matter whether it was launched by the U.S. military or a U.S. intelligence drone.” Lieu said that reduced reporting would also complicate Congress’s oversight of counterterrorism efforts.

In a statement, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said there was “simply no justification” for the move. He said he would seek to make such reporting mandatory through an annual intelligence bill.

Although the congressionally mandated report requires more detailed, comprehensive information on military strikes than the 2016 order does, Lewis said he was concerned that the Trump administration had failed to comply with other sections, including a requirement to periodically convene officials from across the government to discuss civilian-casualty trends.

“The consequences of that are seen in Mosul and Raqqa, where the risk to civilians grew and grew, and there were no adjustments made,” he said, referring to the intense 2016-2017 bombing campaigns in and around the Islamic State’s twin capitals in Iraq and Syria, respectively.

Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.