The lax checks on former U.S. President Barack Obama's drone war have become even worse as Donald Trump's administration has handed power over to the CIA to carry out the targeted strikes without White House approval, speeding up how quickly the intelligence agency can pull the trigger.
And while surpassing former U.S. President Barack Obama’s record on drone strikes would be a feat — he was the president that administered the most in history, after all — Trump’s administration is on course to do just that with the new set of new policies.
The new authority – which was likely approved soon after Trump’s inauguration, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal – takes drone strikes out of the sole control of the military, making it likely that tracking accountability in terms of already unprecedented civilian casualties will be even more difficult. In particular, the policy change gives authority to the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out drone strikes without the White House's seal of approval.
The move overhauls an Obama administration policy that required the military to carry out strikes on targets the CIA identified. Unlike the Pentagon, the CIA does not need to disclose drone strikes — or its civilian casualties.
The new authority, which is expected to be accompanied by further changes to relax drone war rules, according to a report by the Washington Post, has raised alarm about the potential for even further abuse through the controversial program.
“There are a lot of problems with the drone program and the targeted killing program, but the CIA should be out of the business of ordering lethal strikes,” deputy director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Christopher Anders, told the Wall Street Journal.
“The CIA should be a foreign intelligence gathering and analysis organization — not a paramilitary one," he added.
Included in the authority is a relaxed requirement around those who can be targeted in a drone strike, which under the Obama administration was already very broad.
“A big goal is getting the White House out of the way of itself,” an anonymous senior U.S. official, told The Washington Post. “The president believes too much has been centralized in the White House, and he wants to push decisions down to the agencies.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump said that he would continue drone use against terrorist targets and even their families.
Although introduced by President George W. Bush, the use of unmanned aircraft systems soared exponentially under Obama. Despite this, the former POTUS allegedly had intentions of putting policies in place that would curtail abuse by future administrations.
“We have to create an architecture for this because (of) the potential for abuse,” Obama said in a speech in August. He said one of his goals before leaving office was to create an “internal structure” and “institutionalized process” that would restrict his successors. But Trump is on course to reverse much of this.
In a report last summer, the Obama White House admitted to killing between 64 to 116 civilians in drone operations outside so-called established war zones, although advocacy groups estimated that the true figured were much higher.