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Trump nixes public report on civilians killed by drone strikes

President Trump is nixing an Obama-era directive requiring the intelligence community to issue an annual public report on civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes.

Mr. Trump, who has complained about the release of reports detailing military activity, issued an executive order Wednesday rescinding part of an order signed in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama. That order required the director of national intelligence to release an unclassified summary of U.S. drone strikes outside active war zones, including data about civilians and combatants killed in those strikes. 

Under a 2017 law, the Pentagon is still required to provide Congress with information about civilian deaths. Bloomberg first reported Mr. Trump's decision to halt the public reporting requirement.

The new executive order doesn't provide a rationale for the change, but the president has criticized the publication of reports on military activities in the past. 

"One of the things I have told the secretary and other people, we do these reports on our military," Mr. Trump said in January. "Some [inspector general] goes over there — who mostly appointed by President Obama, but we will have ours too — and he goes over there and they do a report, every single thing that's happening and they release it to the public. What kind of stuff is this? We are fighting wars and they are doing reports and releasing it to the public. The public means the enemy, the enemy reads those reports, they study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports."

In his 2016 order, Mr. Obama said publicly documenting civilian drone deaths would help the U.S. learn from mistakes, even if some casualties are unavoidable.

"Civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state's inherent right of self-defense," the 2016 order said. "The U.S. government shall maintain and promote best practices that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians."

In early 2017, before Obama left office, his administration estimated between 64 and 116 civilian deaths took place outside war zones between 2009 and 2015. 

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, blasted Mr. Trump's decision to keep civilian drone strike deaths secret. 

"President Trump has already weakened rules that sought to limit civilian deaths caused by this country's illegal and immoral lethal force program, in which it kills suspects in places where we are not at war. This order now shrouds those killings in even greater secrecy," Shamsi said in a statement. 

"Trump's decision to increase secrecy about the United States' killing of people abroad is deeply wrong and dangerous for public accountability. Trump revoked a transparency order that provided an imperfect but still important official record of deaths caused by the military and, critically, the CIA. This decision will hide from the public the government's own tally of the total number of deaths it causes every year in its lethal force program. Now, the government is also no longer committed to providing reasons why its total death count is different from independent credible reports by media and rights groups."

David Martin and Steven Portnoy contributed reporting.

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