ACLU Prompts Release of US Drone Assassination Policy
August 8, 2016 Kevin Bohn / CNN & American Civil Liberties Union
The Obama administration has released a previously secret 18-page policy guidance document that lays out how potential drone targets may be chosen and approved and the President's role in the decision-making process. The policy document, known as the President Policy Guidance, says counterterrorism operations -- including lethal action against designated terrorist targets -- will be taken only when there is "a near certainty" that the target is properly identified.
Newly Released US Drone Policy
Explains How Targets Can Be Chosen Kevin Bohn / CNN
WASHINGTON ((August 6, 2016) -- The Obama administration has released a previously secret 18-page policy guidance document that lays out how potential drone targets may be chosen and approved and the President's role in the decision-making process.
The policy document, known as the President Policy Guidance, or PPG, says counterterrorism operations, including lethal action against designated terrorist targets, "shall be discriminating and precise as reasonably possible" and says "direct action" against "high value targets" "will be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is, in fact, the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur."
After the administration decided in 2013 to release more information about its counterterrorism operations, it released a general fact sheet laying out some of the objectives for such operations.
This newly released policy document, however, lays out in more detail the procedures for getting approval, who may be targeted and what guidelines must be followed.
A plan to go after terrorism targets must undergo a legal review by the agency that will conduct the operation, and then it goes to the members of the National Security Council before being presented to the President for his decision.
Among the guidelines, such information as the counterterrorism objective, duration of time for which the authority remains in force, the legal basis and the strike assets that may be employed must be included. Conditions must include a near certainty that the high value target or other lawful terror target is present and near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.
However, when dealing with lethal action against a previously designated high value target, a different procedure can be followed. If the target is a US citizen or someone living in the US, or if there is not unanimous agreement among the President's key national security officials regarding the nomination of the target, it will be submitted to the President for a decision.
However, the head of the nominating agency themselves can approve lethal action against a proposed individual if all of the major national security officials unanimously agree it should be undertaken, but the President has to be apprised of the decision.
"When the use of lethal action is deemed necessary, departments and agencies of the United States government must employ all reasonably available resources to ascertain the identity of the target so that action can taken," the policy states. It adds that for it to be approved, the plan must show "the individual's activities pose a continuing, imminent threat to US persons."
The policy calls for an annual review of individuals whom the US government has authorized for possible lethal action "to evaluate whether the intelligence continues to support a determination that the individuals (word redacted) qualify for lethal action."
The policy states that when the US is considering "potential direction against a US person" additional questions must be submitted to the Justice Department for review and "it must conduct a legal analysis to ensure that such action" is lawful and constitutional.
If there are differences of opinion about an operation between top-ranking members of the National Security Council, the PPG states, "The President will adjudicate any disagreement."
ACLU Lawsuit Prompted Disclosure
The release comes as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and how the Obama administration has said it was to be more transparent regarding these types of operations.
"We welcome the release of these documents, and particularly the release of the Presidential Policy Guidance that has supplied the policy framework for the drone campaign since May 2013," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.
He added, "The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government's counterterrorism policies. The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of the powers that will soon be in the hands of another president."
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the policy outlines "the highest standard we can set" when it comes to using lethal force against a suspected terrorist target.
"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," Price said.
Besides outlining the policies for drone strikes, this document also lays out what criteria needs to be followed for an operation to capture a terror suspect, such as whether it would further US strategy, the implications for broader regional and political interests of the US, whether the capture would interfere with any intelligence collection and the long-term disposition options for the person.
"In no event will additional detainees be brought to the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base," it says.
As part of its effort to include more transparency, the administration estimated last month that between 64 and 116 civilians died during the years 2009-2015 from US drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the same time span, the administration said between 2,372 and 2,581 militants had been killed by drones.
CNN's Wes Bruer, Kevin Liptak and Samantha Reyes contributed to this report.
U.S. Releases Drone Strike 'Playbook' in Response to ACLU Lawsuit ACLU
NEW YORK (August 6, 2016) -- In response to a court order in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Obama administration has released a redacted version of the White House document that sets out the government's policy framework for drone strikes "outside the United States and areas of actual hostilities."
The Presidential Policy Guidance, once known as "the Playbook," was issued by President Obama in May 2013 following promises of more transparency and stricter controls for the drone program. But while the administration released a short "fact sheet" describing the document, it did not release the PPG itself, or any part of it.
In February, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, who is presiding over a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU, expressed skepticism that the document could be withheld in its entirety and ordered the government to submit the PPG for the court's review.
Rather than continue to defend its withholding of the entire document, the government told the court that it would prepare a redacted version of the PPG for public release. Justice Department lawyers turned the PPG and several other documents over to the ACLU on Friday evening.
"We welcome the release of these documents, and particularly the release of the Presidential Policy Guidance that has supplied the policy framework for the drone campaign since May 2013," said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer.
"The PPG provides crucial information about policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including hundreds of non-combatants, and about the bureaucracy that the Obama administration has constructed to oversee and implement those policies.
"The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government's counterterrorism policies. The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of the powers that will soon be in the hands of another president."
The document released today provides many new details about the policy standards that govern drone strikes. It also provides a window into the administration's "nominations" process for targeting individuals with lethal force or for capture, and it describes the government's procedures for conducting "after action reports" to assess the consequences of its lethal and capture operations.
But questions remain about where the PPG applies, whether the president has waived its requirements in particular instances, and how the PPG's relatively stringent standards can be reconciled with the accounts of eye witnesses, journalists, and human rights researches who have documented large numbers of bystander casualties.
Together with the PPG, the government also released four Defense Department documents, two of which it had previously released to the ACLU with more redactions:
* A March 2014 document titled "Report on Process for Determining Targets of Lethal or Capture Operations," which discusses the legal and policy standards in the PPG.
* A July 2014 document titled "Report on Associated Forces," which separately lists groups the government considers to be "associated" or "affiliated" with al-Qaida. (The difference between the two categories of groups is important because the government has relied on the 2011 Authorization for Use of Military Force to justify attacks against "associated" forces.
* A December 2013 document titled "Department of Defense Implementation of the Presidential Policy Guidance," which is a heavily redacted memorandum shared with Congress.
* A March 2014 document titled "Report on Congressional Notification of Sensitive Military Operations and Counterterrorism Operational Briefings," which summarizes the PPG's congressional reporting requirements.
The documents released today come in one of three ACLU FOIA lawsuits seeking records on targeted killing. In the other cases, two appellate courts have held that some of the secrecy surrounding the drone campaign is unlawful.
In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ordered the release of a July 2010 memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi.
That case is again before the Second Circuit. In 2013, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the CIA could not lawfully refuse to confirm or deny that it had an "intelligence interest" in the drone program. That case was dismissed in April 2016.