An Opportunity for National Security Transparency in the Trump Era

Amid the daily bewilderments of the Trump era, stories that would have been major news in previous administrations instead fade into the general cacophony.  So it is with President Trump’s increasing use of drones and commandos to target terrorists and decreasing transparency regarding those operations.  An area of national security policy for which President Obama periodically came under intense criticism has hardly registered a blip on the radar of today’s news coverage.  And so it’s worth a reminder that, on May 1, the administration is required, under an Executive Order issued by Obama that remains in effect, to release a report accounting for the total number of counterterrorism strikes conducted in 2017 and resulting combatant and civilian deaths.  What happens next week on this report’s due date will tell us a lot about whether the Trump administration intends to begin explaining to the American people more about the operations conducted in their name or instead means to continue the steady slide backwards toward opacity.

The decision to release aggregate statistics about U.S. counterterrorism strikes came in 2016, when the Obama Administration, responding to a growing call for a fuller accounting of America’s drone program, issued an Executive Order that focused on preventing civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations.  The Order also required the Executive Branch to release a report documenting certain U.S. strikes and the deaths they caused.  The first report provided aggregate statistics of the total number of U.S. airstrikes conducted outside so-called “areas of active hostilities” — that is, strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia rather than those occurring in “hot battlefields” like Iraq and Afghanistan — and the assessed number of combatant and civilian deaths from those operations. That report covered 2009 to 2015.  Importantly, the Order called for an annual public accounting of strikes going forward, to be released no later than May 1 of each year.  In the waning hours of the Obama Administration, the government released a report covering relevant strikes conducted in 2016.  So, next week is the first time that the Trump Administration will face the legal obligation, under the standing Order, to release its own statistics.  (Notably, it’s also the first time any administration will be under a new obligation, imposed by Congress last year, to provide an annual “list of all United States military operations during the [previous year] that were confirmed, or reasonably suspected, to have resulted in civilian casualties,” as well as additional information about those operations such as their dates and locations.)

The Director of National Intelligence’s initial release of the statistics required by Executive Order was not without controversy.  Some media and human rights groups criticized how the statistics were aggregated across multiple years and countries, which made it difficult to identify trends or compare U.S. statistics to those assessed by non-governmental organizations.  And commentators were quick to note the dramatically lower U.S. Government assessment of civilian casualties as compared to the estimates made by the three main outside groups that track drone strikes: New America (with which we are both affiliated), the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Long War Journal.  (U.S. Government and non-governmental estimates for 2016 operations diverged substantially less than respective estimates for operations from 2009 to 2015.)  But, in the context of a broader effort across the Obama administration to enhance transparency around counterterrorism operations, most critics had to acknowledge that progress was being made, however slowly.

In 15 months of the Trump presidency, much of that march toward transparency has been halted and even reversed.  First, and perhaps most notably, the administration has begun to release dramatically less information about specific U.S. airstrikes.  By the final year of the Obama administration, the U.S. military announced all of its strikes in Yemen and Somalia, and it publicly acknowledged its broader air campaign in support of Libyan forces battling ISIS.  The information released was relatively minimal — often just the location of the strike, with occasional inclusion of the number of casualties assessed to have resulted from the operation — but it was a useful way of acknowledging the U.S. Government’s role in the operation and, if something later proved problematic about the strikes, having at least an initial basis on which to address them publicly.  The move toward transparency in places like Yemen and Somalia was a reflection of lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. military learned that acknowledging its operations and providing basic information about them went a long way toward meaningfully building at least some trust with the local population and a modicum of tolerance for the operations.  The disclosures were an important, though incomplete, step toward allowing for greater scrutiny of U.S. operations by journalists and outside groups, who could independently assess whether the United States was living up to the standards it set for itself.  These efforts, on balance, insulated the administration from broader criticisms and unfounded, at times downright conspiratorial, beliefs about U.S. operations.

Within a couple months of President Trump’s taking office, the disclosure policy began to turn, with U.S. Central Command releasing only aggregated information covering dozens of airstrikes conducted in Yemen and offering no specific explanation for why such a dramatic surge in operations was necessary.  It was a remarkable silence in the face of the most substantial set of U.S. strikes in Yemen ever.  By fall, The New York Times was reporting on several changes to U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan that would reduce transparency for operations in that theater — previously held up as the paragon of transparency.  And, in recent weeks, The New York Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have reported on decreased transparency surrounding U.S. operations in Libya and Yemen in addition to Afghanistan.  According to the Times, the U.S. military has acknowledged only half of the eight strikes it has conducted in Libya over the past year.  And, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. military now provides data only on “the number of weapons released in Afghanistan” and has provided only vague acknowledgements that some number of strikes had occurred in Yemen in recent months.  Although the Bureau of Investigative Journalism notes U.S. Africa Command’s continued commitment to transparency, the organization’s reporting suggests that the decrease in transparency is the result of new guidance, possibly stemming from a broader push by Secretary Mattis to increase secrecy in service of operational security.

It’s hard to say exactly why all this is happening.  Increasing transparency around operations is difficult, which is why it wasn’t until well into Obama’s second term that the United States began to release regular and fairly specific information about its ongoing operations, despite strong public commitments to greater transparency from the president himself and his team.  There are certain legal and policy restrictions on what can be shared publicly; and, when in doubt — and in the absence of a clear emphasis from senior civilian leadership that transparency is a priority – operational security-minded professionals will generally lean toward secrecy. Indeed, it is especially easy for these parts of the bureaucracy to slide toward a heavy presumption against disclosures if there are no organizing principles established by senior levels of the government to pursue transparency where feasible.

In other areas, the slide toward opacity has been just as stark.  The administration has increased deployments of special operations forces worldwide, expanding their presence in places like Somalia, the Sahel, Yemen, and Syria and authorizing them to engage in ever more aggressive operations with virtually no public explanation for why the threat merits the elevated risk to U.S. service members.  Serious allegations that U.S. partners committed human rights abuses in Yemen were swept aside with brusque denials from the Pentagon and congressional calls for investigations never resulted in a public accounting of the relevant facts.  News reports indicate that the Trump administration has replaced Obama’s presidential guidance on counterterrorism air strikes and commando raids with a new policy framework, but the Trump administration has neither publicly acknowledged the new guidance nor discussed how it might differ from the Obama directive.  A recent congressionally-mandated report on the legal and policy framework for U.S. counterterrorism operations provided a frustratingly thin account of the foundations for our operations.  Critical details that had been disclosed publicly by the prior administration, such as steps taken to prevent civilian casualties and applications of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to today’s terrorist threats, were provided to Congress in a classified annex and not presented publicly.  And the administration has not deployed its senior officials to explain publicly U.S. counterterrorism efforts and the underlying legal and policy framework, let alone release an updated counterterrorism strategy as anticipated.  All told, this is a dramatic break from the public dialogue on these issues that the past two administrations supported.

A single report on drone strikes won’t stop the worrying slide toward opacity.  The Trump administration owes the American people, as well as the people of the countries where it conducts operations, more transparency on our counterterrorism strikes and the basis for them, all of which can be provided while still accommodating very real operational and intelligence considerations – as it has been in the recent past.  Simply put, meaningful transparency in national security emerges only when the President and his senior officials make it a priority.  But, as we reach the May 1 deadline, we will have a good indicator of whether the administration even cares. 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).

Joshua Geltzer

Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Member of the editorial board of Just Security.