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In the latest step toward rolling back Obama-era rules for targeted killings, President Donald Trump will no longer require U.S. intelligence officials to publicly disclose the numbers of people killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones.
Trump ended the reporting requirement by signing an executive order Wednesday. The move had been expected since the administration last year failed to release an annual accounting of civilian and enemy casualties required under an order signed in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama.
The order signed by Trump revokes a specific requirement that the administration release an unclassified summary of "the number of strikes undertaken by the United States government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities, as well as assessments of combatant and noncombatant deaths resulting from those strikes, among other information."
Obama dramatically expanded the use of targeted strikes with drone strikes against al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. He also sought to put in place a set of rules designed to promote accountability and encourage policymakers to minimize civilian casualties. Critics said those rules placed unwarranted constraints on counterterrorism operatives.
Among the rules was a requirement that there be a "near certainty" of no civilian casualties before the CIA launched a strike. That rule did not apply in war zones, where the standard is less strict. It's unclear whether that rule remains in place.
The reporting requirement was the first-ever effort by the U.S. government to account for how many people have been killed in targeted strikes in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Obama's first report in 2016 said the U.S. launched 473 strikes from Jan. 20, 2009, until Dec. 31, 2015, killing 2,372 to 2,581 combatants and 64 to 116 noncombatants.
Outside groups have much higher estimates for the death toll in American drone strikes.
That requirement is now repealed.
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at the Human Rights Watch, called Trump's decision "deeply troubling."
"Unless Congress wants to leave open the possibility that the CIA can be a secret killing squad, it should immediately act to mandate robust unclassified and appropriately classified reports on the use of all force by the United States, and assessments of any and all civilian deaths, injury or other harm, caused by the United States," Prasow said.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC) insists the administration is committed to "acknowledging responsibility" when civilian casualties occur, but called the reporting requirement "superfluous."
"This action eliminates superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission," the NSC spokesperson said.
Trump's order does not affect a separate law that Congress passed last year requiring the Department of Defense to provide Congress with a report of civilian casualties resulting from military operations. But that does not apply to many areas where CIA drone strikes take place.
Under Trump, CIA drone strikes have not reached the level they did in the early Obama years, when the agency was pummeling targets in Pakistan on a weekly basis.
But in 2017, there were a record 156 counterterrorism strikes in Yemen and Somalia, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the attacks through credible U.S. and foreign media reports.
Last year, that number fell to 82, the website reported.