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US drone policy disclosed

August 7, 2016

White House policy on US drone attacks abroad require "near certainty" that a terror suspect is present and that civilians won't be injured or killed. Disclosure was obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Afghanistan US Militär Drohnen
Image: Reuters/J. Smith

The Obama administration elaborated on its once-secret policy on drone strikes on Saturday by releasing an 18-page "policy guidance" document following complaints by rights groups that civilian casualties had been undercounted.

A US District Court had ordered disclosure of the so-called "Playbook."

Afghanistan US Militär Drohnen
A controller directs unmanned drones from KandaharImage: Reuters/J. Smith

In July, National Intelligence Director James Clapper reported that the US had killed between 64 and 116 civilians in counterterrorism attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where the US was not conducting "on-the-ground" warfare.

His report said between 473 counterterrorism strikes had been conducted by the US between January 2009 and December 2015.

Those strikes, including hits by unmanned drones, had killed an estimated 2,372 to 2,581 combatants in those seven years, the report stated.

The data did not include strikes inside Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which the US considers areas of active hostilities.

Court-ordered disclosure

Saturday's disclosure of the redacted [edited] policy had been ordered by a US District Court last February under the Freedom of Information Act.

Jammel Jaffer, deputy legal director or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had sued for disclosure, said the text would "inform debate about the wisdom and lawfulness of the government-ordered killings.

According to the ACLU, the "presidential policy guidance" strikes against terrorist targets can only be taken "when there is near certainty" that that person is present, and that "non-combatants" [civilians] will not be injured or killed.

USA Jameel Jaffer
ACLU's Jaffer wants debate on wisdom of drone attacksImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Smialowski

Targeted killing of terror suspect presupposes that that person poses a "continuing, imminent threat" to Americans.

Presidential approval not always required

Direct approval from the president is required for a lethal strike against a US citizen. In cases where US officials are not unanimous on proceeding against a foreigner, his approval is not required, but the president must be notified.

The White House's National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said Saturday "'near certainty' is the highest standard we can set."

The US sought to minimize" the risk of civilian casualties or when it acted "quickly to defend US or partner forces from imminent attack," Price said.

Anti-drone protest at Ramstein

In southwestern Germany in June, some 5,000 people protested the presumed use of the US air base at Ramstein in US-led drone warfare directed at targets in the Middle East and northern Africa.

Former US drone operator Brandon Bryant first made revelations in "Der Spiegel" magazine in 2013, claiming that Ramstein was a major hub for coordinating Washington's global drone war, which included targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

He later told a German parliamentary committee that data to and from drones went through Ramstein. They were not, however, directly steered from the base.

The German and US governments have repeatedly downplayed the importance of the facility and evaded questions on the air bases role in drone operations

ipj/bw (Reuters, AP)

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