An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Photo via Flickr.
The AirForce Times reported Friday that the U.S. Air Force has stopped publishing data on weapons releases from Remotely Piloted Aircraft – i.e. drone strikes – in their monthly activity reports on Afghanistan operations.
Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”
The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.
Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.
In other words, not only did the Air Force stop publishing their numbers on drone strikes, but they actively removed that data from previously published reports. The information is no longer available to the public, and the military made a distinct effort to remove it from the public domain. But under federal laws, there are very clear rules around what information can be public and what can be private.
Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect July 5, 1967, information held by the government has been publicly available by default. As the FOIA website puts it:
Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.
The Department of Defense, on their FOIA page, lays out the nine exemptions. Essentially, information that is exempt from public disclosure must be classified, pose a threat to national or operational security or invade the personal privacy of personnel, among other things. The law is very specific on these points, as they are the only reasons for which the government can withhold information from its people.
Granted, not all government information is readily accessible or published. The point of this law is not to burden agencies with the task of publicizing every action they take, but it is to make it possible for citizens to get information about their government, enhancing transparency and accountability. So while public officials don’t need to post their every action online, they are obligated to provide information when it is requested of them unless it falls under a specific exemption. Government information is public by default.
So when the Air Force took down the data on drone strikes and said – as the Air Force Times reports – “the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” it was removing data from the public record because it didn’t look good, not because it was exempt from release. The full statement seems to suggest the data was misleading because it reported only instances in which a drone used weapons and not the far more common instances in which drones were used only for surveillance.
“A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” CENTCOM said in the statement. “A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events.”
The Air Force could have added the total monthly number of RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] sorties [missions] to their report, which would have brought the number of kinetic events [drone strikes] into proportion with the total drone activity in Afghanistan. Perhaps then the public would be able to see that while these aircraft are doing damage and taking lives, they are also doing a lot of work collecting intelligence that benefits – and perhaps saves the lives of – troops on the ground. This would have addressed the Air Force’s concern that the data was disproportionately focused on offensive strikes and at the same time increased the transparency of the operations.
Instead, the Air Force omitted the number from their reporting and then went back into their old reports and stripped the already public numbers from there too, despite the fact that the information clearly was not protected under any of the FOIA exemptions. It is possible that the Air Force would release those numbers again in the face of a FOIA request, but the fact that they made the effort to actively remove already available data from the public domain seems to me a violation of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, if not its letter.