Trump Sued by ACLU Over Secret Killing Rules

Donald Trump probably expanded the use of drones overseas, but the ACLU wants to find out for sure. Andrew Renneisen / Getty

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration Thursday over the secrecy of its killing policies. The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which names the departments of Defense, Justice and State, is seeking to force the government to release a copy of new rules governing drone strikes and targeted killings abroad. The Obama administration was similarly compelled to make public its drone strike "playbook" in August 2016 after an ACLU FOIA lawsuit.

Related: Under Trump, U.S. military wants to use lethal drone strikes against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Niger

The administration's policy, known as "Principles, Standards, and Procedures," replaced the Obama-era "Presidential Policy Guidance," though it is not definitively known what changes were made.

In announcing its lawsuit, the ACLU tweeted, "Trump's new secret killing rules must be made public so we can all better grapple with the harm our government is causing, both at home and abroad."

Trump’s new secret killing rules must be made public so we can all better grapple with the harm our government is causing, both at home and abroad.

— ACLU (@ACLU) December 21, 2017

The New York Times reported in September on some of the likely changes, saying the administration was "preparing to dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields." Trump's national security team recommended that the list of acceptable targets for kill missions be expanded to include "foot-soldier jihadists" instead of just "high-level militants," and that drone attacks no longer be required to "undergo high-level vetting," according to the same Times report.

Trump himself may have forecasted the easing of restrictions in a late-August primetime address to the American people discussing his strategy for Afghanistan.

"These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful as we lift restrictions and expand authorities," Trump said.

An ACLU press release announcing the lawsuit also claims that the new Trump administration rules lifted "a requirement that a target must present a 'continuing, imminent' threat to the United States." In the same release, ACLU attorney Brett Max Kaufman laid out the importance of the rules becoming public.

"The inevitable outcome of looser rules is that the Trump administration will kill more people in more places, and more civilians and their communities will bear the costs," he said. "Our democracy has no place for secret killing rules, and this policy must be made public."

The ACLU also stressed that eased killing rules mixed with Trump's ban on immigration from a number of countries could lead to more deaths.

"Many of the countries in which our government is killing people are also subject to the Muslim ban — meaning, the Trump administration is cruelly excluding people fleeing violence it has helped cause," reads an ACLU blog post published Thursday.

The new policy does reportedly maintain a key Obama-era protocol requiring "near certainty" that civilians will not be killed before a strike is greenlit.