Hani Mohammed / AP

The "U.S. government has acknowledged just 20% of the more than 700 strikes carried out since 2002" in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, according to a Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies investigation.

Why it matters: Those countries are not active battlefields for the U.S., but the U.S. has allegedly been launching strikes nonetheless and hitting civilians. "It's important there are constraints" holding a country accountable on striking civilians, one of the co-authors of the study, Alex Moorehead, told Axios, because otherwise — right now — the U.S. "lowers the threshold for their use of force," which other countries could start doing, too.

Plus, launching strikes in non-hostile areas is unlawful unless one of three conditions is met: getting permission from the country to attack, getting permission from the UN to attack, or if there is an imminent (that means seconds not hours) threat.

The Pentagon told Axios it "cannot confirm a percentage that conflates Department of Defense airstrikes with others" and acknowledged one strike in Pakistan in the last 18 months. The DOD spokesperson did not immediately comment on what the downsides are to being transparent on strikes and the Pentagon said in March the rules of engagement have not changed, which applies to constraints on who and when the U.S. can strike (more on that here).

America's legal justification for launching strikes is vague: The U.S. has been claiming self-defense since 2010 when launching airstrikes against individuals in Yemen and Somalia, but the UN Charter sanctions using force against another country in self-defense, not against individuals, the authors write.

  • But the "war on terror" is complicating things; the Chief of Staff to U.S. Ambassador to the UN has said since the U.S. is engaged in "armed conflict" with al-Qaeda, the U.S. "may target them with lethal force wherever they may be found."

The Trump effect: The administration is "much more bellicose and willing to use force," Moorehead said, leaving a much "greater risk of abuse" of airstrikes under Trump. Already, Trump's administration has been launching airstrikes at about 5 times the pace Obama did, per the CFR. The White House did not immediately return request for comment.

Methods: The study took data The Bureau for Investigative Journalism collated on strikes in those three countries and compiled how many of these reports the U.S. government officially confirmed. TBIJ included Afghanistan in its data, but this report excluded it because "there's never been a doubt there's an armed conflict ongoing" there.

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