US declassifies its ‘playbook’ for drone attacks

Pakistani tribal villagers hold a rally in Islamabad to condemn U.S. drone attacks in their areas.

Pakistani tribal villagers hold a rally in Islamabad to condemn U.S. drone attacks in their areas.   | Photo Credit: B.K. Bangash

The Obama administration has disclosed its rules and procedures for targeting individuals for killing outside conventional war zones — including with drones — further lifting the secrecy surrounding one of its most disputed tactics for fighting terrorism.

The newly declassified document shows that if the top lawyers and leaders of the departments and agencies on the National Security Council agree that a proposed strike would be lawful and appropriate, the Pentagon or the CIA can proceed.

If they disagree, or if the person to be targeted is an American citizen, the matter must go to the President for a decision.

President Barack Obama issued the 18-page set of rules, sometimes called the drone strike “playbook” but formally known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, in May 2013. The government had said this year that it intended to make the guidance public as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. It provided the document to the ACLU late on Friday, and the organisation posted it on its website on Saturday morning.

Operational agencies

In 2012, the President directed his administration to tighten procedures and standards, resulting in his May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance and a major national security speech at National Defense University.

The guidance says that the operational agencies of the National Security Council — meaning the Defense Department and the CIA — may nominate someone for proposed killing after a review by their top lawyers.

The National Counterterrorism Center then develops a report analysing the intelligence about that person, and top lawyers across different security agencies deliberate over whether the person meets legal standards for attack.

The process then goes to the “deputies committee,” made up of the No. 2 officials at national security departments and agencies. They weigh such factors as whether it is feasible to halt the perceived threat short of killing a terror suspect, and the impact of a strike on “the broader regional and international political interests of the United States.”

The deputies make recommendations to their agency directors or department secretaries, who make up the “principals committee.” If they unanimously agree — and if the target is not an American citizen — the strike can proceed with notice to the President. Otherwise, the President must make the decision.

But the document also says the President may waive the rules in “extraordinary cases”. It cites when there is a “fleeting opportunity” and no time to follow the full review procedures, or a proposal to kill a suspect who “poses a continuing, imminent threat to another country’s persons”.

The guidance shows that in the case of a capture, rather than the killing of a terror suspect, the administration generally prefers to let other countries handle detention. If that is unworkable, the United States will take custody and try to prosecute the suspect, it says, but adds, “In no event will additional detainees be brought to the detention facilities at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.” — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 11:44:36 AM |

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