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New US Counterterrorism Guidelines Face Questions

The White House in Washington, D.C.,  December 30, 2012.The White House in Washington, D.C., December 30, 2012.
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The White House in Washington, D.C.,  December 30, 2012.
The White House in Washington, D.C., December 30, 2012.
The White House is neither confirming nor denying a U.S. newspaper report that work is nearly complete on a set of specific guidelines for the U.S. war on terrorism.  The so-called "playbook" on counter-terrorism still awaits President Barack Obama's final approval.  

A recent report by The Washington Post said the "playbook" with specific details of U.S. counterterrorism policies is in the final stages of review.

Quoting anonymous U.S. officials, the newspaper said the document would provide specifics and legal principles to be used in deciding whether terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens overseas, could be targeted for attack.

The guidelines would also spell out the approvals required before strikes by remote-controlled drones.

On that point, U.S. government agencies are expected to agree that CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan against al-Qaida and Taliban forces can continue, at least until 2014, when U.S. combat troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The counterterrorism playbook is unlikely to be made public.  White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to discuss specifics of the document, but said President Obama remains determined to pursue operations against al-Qaida and its allies.

"The president's overall approach is that we need to do everything we can to keep Americans and America safe, as well as our allies, and we need to do it in ways that are consistent with our values and our laws," said Carney. "And that is certainly the approach that he has taken and will continue to take."

Since 2009, President Obama has intensified drone attacks in Pakistan, and in Yemen against an al-Qaida affiliate group, despite criticism at home and abroad.

The apparent drone strike in 2011 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric working in Yemen for al-Qaida, refocused media attention on the use of “targeted killings.”  

Carney referred reporters to statements by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, nominated to head the CIA.  Brennan has been the principal official defining legal and moral justifications for use of drones and targeted killings.

Matthew Aid, an independent intelligence analyst, says the emerging guidelines have gone through numerous revisions and are the subject of intense debate.  He suggests that any exemption from the guidelines of drone strikes in Pakistan is cause for concern.

"The principal weapon that the U.S. government uses at present to locate, localize and kill terrorists is the unmanned drone," said Aid. "So if you exempt the drones from this doctrinal document that has been put together over the span of a year by the White House and the national security establishment, basically you're leaving out a critical component of what it is we're doing out there."

In a telephone conference call Tuesday, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations voiced their concerns.  Blair said covert drone operations have created "legal knots" (dilemmas) for the Obama administration, and that targeted killings in Pakistan will not help the Islamabad government control the threat if faces from terrorist activity in the long term.

ZENKO:  “If the United States decides not to apply the playbook to Pakistan it is essentially meaningless because 85 percent of all the targeted killings that the U.S. has conducted in non-battlefield settings since September 11, 2001, have occurred in Pakistan.  So the vast majority of targeted killings and drone strikes will not be covered under the playbook."

BLAIR: "A classified playbook does not reassure the American people who I think are the primary ones that need to be convinced that their government is doing the right thing."

White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked if drone strikes contradict part of President Obama's inauguration speech in which he said Americans believe "enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

Despite progress against "al-Qaida central," Carney said,  Obama remains "clear eyed" about the threat posed by affiliated groups in a "new phase" of the counterterrorism war.

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