Drone Attack Policy Released by U.S. Government After Suit

  • Redacted version of 2013 policy made public after ACLU sued
  • ‘In no event’ will those captured be brought to Guantanamo

The Obama administration released a redacted version of its 2013 policy guidance that spells out the interagency review process for determining whether a suspected terrorist should be targeted in an overseas drone strike.

The guidance described a process for directing a strike against a “high value target” only if there was “near-certainty” of the target’s identity and no civilians would be killed. It said capturing the individual was the preferred policy. The document was turned over to the American Civil Liberties Union after the group sued under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Lethal action should not be proposed or pursued as a punitive step or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission,” according to the policy.

The ACLU said in a statement that questions remain about where the guidance applies, “whether the president has waived its requirements in particular instances,” and how its “relatively stringent standards can be reconciled with the accounts of eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights researches who have documented large numbers of bystander casualties.”

The document was turned over Friday to the ACLU, which released it publicly on Saturday.

Human-rights groups have questioned whether the U.S. tries hard enough to capture terrorists, rather than killing them, in part because of the dilemma of what to do with prisoners. The policy says that those captured should be placed in the custody of other nations when possible or face U.S. prosecution “in a civilian court or, where available, a military commission.”

Guantanamo Bay

“In no event will additional detainees be brought to the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base,” it says. President Barack Obama has tried to close the prison in Cuba throughout his two terms in office, only to be stymied by Congress.

Between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in 473 U.S. strikes outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria between the beginning of Obama’s presidency in 2009 and the end of 2015, the government said last month in its first accounting of non-combat deaths. The strikes killed as many as 2,581 combatants, the White House said. The figures include casualties from strikes by drones and by manned aircraft, but not those inflicted by U.S. personnel on the ground.

Critics called the civilian casualty figures unrealistically low. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 380 and 801 civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya during the period covered by the report. The Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, estimates 207 civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen alone during the period covered by the White House’s report.

For a report on non-combatant deaths, click here.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said Saturday in a statement that the memo’s standards “offer protections for civilians that exceed the requirements of the law of armed conflict.”

The guidance “provides that, in general, the United States will use lethal force outside areas of active hostilities against a lawful target that poses a ‘continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,’” Price said.

The May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, once known as the “playbook,” spells out an interagency review process that would be triggered after the Defense Department or intelligence agencies nominated targets in instances where capture wasn’t feasible or where the target was determined to be an imminent threat.

A Pentagon request would be reviewed by the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then a counterterrorism advisory group that included the department’s general counsel.

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