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US Releases More Details of Policy on Drone Attacks

A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, March 9, 2016.
A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, March 9, 2016.

The White House has released an edited version of President Barack Obama's once-secret policy on using drone aircraft to combat terrorists around the world, the American Civil Liberties Union said Saturday.

An 18-page document listing "presidential policy guidance" on the drones issue lays out what it says are safeguards to minimize civilian casualties caused by remotely piloted aircraft. It calls for American military forces to use such weapons only when there is "near certainty" that a terrorist target is within range, and that noncombatants will not be killed or injured.

Journalists who read the full document reported it gives the White House national security staff, which is exempt from review by Congress, a substantial role in the process of targeting specific terrorists for death.

Operational plans for killing or capturing terrorist suspects, usually conceived by the CIA or the U.S. military, are reviewed by the National Security Council. The documents released Saturday indicated that representatives of other Cabinet departments and agencies may meet to discuss a specific attack plan, but the president's NSC makes the final decision.

Court order

A federal court ordered the government six months ago to disclose the policy document, known informally among top-level U.S. officials as the "playbook" for drone use, in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU citing the Freedom of Information Act. The version released Saturday was described as "redacted," or edited to withhold specific details whose release could compromise U.S. national security.

The Obama administration issued a summary of its policy on using drones in a 2013 fact sheet, but the lengthier version released Saturday sets out the law and rules the government follows when orders are issued for targeted killings and the capture of terrorist suspects on foreign soil.

The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, welcomed release of the "presidential policy guidance." He said the documents provide new details about policy standards and insights into the process for targeting individuals with lethal force or for capture.

"Its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government's counterterrorism policies," Jaffer said in a statement.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, Ned Price, said, "The president has emphasized that the U.S. government should be as transparent as possible with the American people about our counterterrorism operations, the manner in which they are conducted and their results," according to Reuters.

"Our counterterrorism actions are effective and legal, and their legitimacy is best demonstrated by making public more information about these actions as well as setting clear standards for other nations to follow," the NSC spokesman added.

Essential tools

The administration has said in the past that unmanned aircraft are essential tools in the effort to combat extremist militant groups in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Some drone strikes have killed civilians who were not targets, igniting local anger.

One month ago, the White House said that drone attacks and other airstrikes have killed between 64 and 116 civilians since Obama's administration began in January 2009.

Through the end of 2015, U.S. officials said, American forces launched 473 strikes, mostly with drones, that killed roughly 2,400 to 2,600 terrorist "combatants."

Critics said the civilian toll from U.S. airstrikes was undercounted, since the administration's report did not include drone strikes in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq.

In 2013, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said information he had gathered indicated U.S. drone strikes had killed 4,700 people.