Harmful FOIA Exemption Stripped from Bill, Says OTG
WASHINGTON – Open the Government, a leading advocate for transparency to promote government accountability, expressed its support for key components of the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that will enhance transparency and accountability for U.S. use of military force overseas. The final bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where he is expected to sign it.
“When civilians are killed during military operations, the American people deserve real answers to fully understand what happened,” said Lisa Rosenberg, Open the Government’s Executive Director. “We are in favor of the provisions in this bill that offer more transparency and provide a greater window into what occurred in the theater of operations.”
Members of Congress strengthened the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, by removing a harmful Freedom of Information Act exemption.
“A weaker FOIA means a weaker USA,” added Rosenberg. “Our nation is strongest when we are open and transparent, and we live up to the ideals we are fighting to preserve.”
The first provision, Section 1057, would require an annual report on civilian casualties in connection with U.S. military operations, including the date and location of the operation, and the number of both civilian and enemy combatant casualties. It would also require the Department of Defense to describe its process for investigating reports of civilian casualties from U.S. military operations. The report would be submitted to Congress in unclassified form, with the possibility of a classified annex.
The second provision, Section 1264, would require a report within 90 days of the NDAA’s passing on the current legal and policy frameworks for U.S. military and national security operations, including the justification for any changes made to those frameworks since the beginning of the Trump administration. Section 1264 would also require that, going forward, the White House submit reports on additional changes within 30 days. Importantly, all the reports required under this section would be unclassified.
Section 1264 is particularly important given that President Trump has reportedly signed changes to the government’s policies on use of force outside active war zones, doing away with some of the high-level vetting procedures for individual strikes and allowing the targeting of suspected members of terror groups covered under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).
While anonymous government officials have spoken about the change to the press, the White House has not made any public announcement. The White House has also so far refused to release its legal rationale for the U.S. strike against the Assad regime in March.
The administration has shown that it intends to retreat further into secrecy around U.S. use of military force and national security operations, reviving the CIA drone program, classifying Afghanistan war statistics that were previously public, halting public announcements of U.S. troop levels overseas, and hiding information about airstrikes and resulting casualties from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Meanwhile, the recent troop deaths in Niger and airstrikes in Somalia, as well as a significant increase both in U.S. strikes and civilian casualties across theaters, have raised questions about the legal and policy justifications for seemingly expanding use of force in the Middle East and Africa.
“In this environment, it is all the more important that Congress perform its oversight role in a meaningful and transparent way,” said OTG’s Lisa Rosenberg. “We hope to see these provisions implemented and enforced, and we hope to see proactive, thorough disclosures to the public.”
Open the Government is a Washington-based non-partisan coalition of good-and-limited government groups, environmentalists, journalists, library and consumer groups, labor, and others united to make the federal government a more open place in order to ensure integrity and accountability in the operation of our governing institutions, foster confidence in representative government, and support our democratic principles.
Contact: Wayne Besen, Communications Director