Biden secretly limits counter-terrorism drone strikes away from war zones

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has quietly imposed time limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside of conventional battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, and has begun a comprehensive review on whether to toughen the rules. Trump-era rules for such operations, according to officials.

The military and the CIA must now obtain permission from the White House to attack terror suspects in poorly governed places where there are few US ground troops, such as Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, they were allowed to decide for themselves whether circumstances on the ground met certain conditions and an attack was justified.

Officials characterized the tighter controls as an interim solution, while the Biden administration reviewed how targeting worked, both on paper and in practice, under former President Donald J. Trump and developed its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism killing or capturing operations outside war zones. including how to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

The Biden administration did not announce the new limits. But national security adviser Jake Sullivan issued the order on January 20, the day of President Biden’s inauguration, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Any changes resulting from the revision would be the latest twist in a long-running evolution on the rules for drone strikes outside of conventional battlefield zones, an intermittent gray area combat action that has become the focus of America’s long-running counterterrorism wars that took root in the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The drone war on terror has reached its fourth administration with Biden. As Vice President of President Barack Obama, Biden was part of a previous administration that oversaw a major escalation in targeted assassinations using remotely piloted aircraft in his first term, then imposed significant new restrictions on the practice in his second.

While the Biden administration still allows counterterrorism strikes outside active war zones, the additional review and bureaucratic hurdles it has imposed may explain a recent hiatus in such operations. The United States Army’s Africa Command has carried out about half a dozen airstrikes this calendar year in Somalia against Shabab, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, but all were before January 20.

Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, acknowledged that Biden had issued “interim guidance” on the use of military force and related national security operations.

“The purpose of the interim guidance is to ensure that the president has full visibility on the significant actions proposed in these areas, while the National Security Council staff leads a comprehensive interagency review of existing presidential authorizations and delegations of authority with respect to these matters, “said Mrs.,” said Horne.

Although Trump significantly relaxed the limits on counterterrorism attacks outside of war zones, they occurred less during his tenure than under Obama. This is in large part because the nature of the war against Al Qaeda and its fragmented and morphing progeny continues to change.

In particular, during Obama’s first term, there was a sharp escalation in drone attacks on Qaeda suspects in the tribal region of Pakistan and in rural Yemen. Obama broke new ground by deciding to approve the deliberate assassination in 2011 of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was part of the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen.

Then, after the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its “caliphate” became a magnet for jihadists during the last years of Obama and much of the Trump presidency. But the ISIS-controlled region was considered a conventional war zone, so the airstrikes there did not pose the same novel legal and political problems as the targeted killings outside the so-called hot battlefields.

The Biden administration’s review of the policy and legal frameworks governing targeting is still in the early stages. Officials are said to be collecting data, such as official estimates of civilian casualties in military and CIA strikes outside battlefield zones during the Trump era. No decisions have been made on what the new rules will be, Horne said.

“This review includes an examination of past approaches in the context of evolving threats to terrorism to refine our approach going forward,” he said. “In addition, the review will seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures.”

Among the issues said to be under consideration is the possibility of tightening a limit aimed at avoiding civilian casualties of bystanders in such operations. Current rules generally require “near certainty” that no women or children are present in the attack zone, but Trump’s team apparently allowed operators to use a lower standard of simply “reasonable certainty” that it was not likely that no adult civilian men were killed. officials said.

Allowing that increased risk of killing civilians made it easier for the military and the CIA to meet standards for firing missiles. But it’s also routine for civilians to be armed in the kinds of lawless wastelands and failed states the rules are written for.

Among the tradeoffs under discussion, officials said, is that intelligence gathering resources are finite. For example, keeping surveillance drones over a potential attack zone for a longer period to observe who’s in and out means making them less available for other operations.

Officials in the Biden administration are also debating whether to write general rules that apply more strictly than the Trump-era system sometimes was in practice. They found that the Trump system was very flexible, allowing officials to draw up procedures for strikes in particular countries using lower standards than those set out in general policy, so the administration’s safeguards were sometimes stronger on paper than in the reality.

Officials are also faced with a broader philosophical question: whether to return to the Obama-era approach, which was characterized by centralized oversight and high-level intelligence research on individual terrorism suspects, or to keep something closer to the the Trump era, which was looser and more decentralized.

Under the previous rules, which Obama codified in a 2013 order known as PPG, an acronym for Presidential Policy Guidance, a suspect had to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” for Americans to be attacked outside of a war zone. The system led to numerous inter-agency meetings to discuss whether specific suspects met that standard.

Obama imposed his rules after the frequency of counterterrorism strikes soared in tribal Pakistan and rural Yemen, sparking recurring controversies over civilian deaths and a growing impression that armed drones, a new technology that made it easy to fire missiles at suspected enemies in regions that were hard to reach, out of control.

But military and intelligence operators were angered by the limits of the 2013 rules, complaining that the process had become prone to too many lawyers and endless meetings. In October 2017, Trump eliminated that system and imposed a different set of rules and policy procedures to use deadly force outside of war zones.

Its replacement focused instead on the development of general standards for attacks and incursions in particular countries. It allowed the military and the CIA to target suspects based on their status as members of a terrorist group, even if they were simply jihadist soldiers with no special skills or leadership roles. And it allowed operators to decide whether to take specific actions.

During the presidential transition, Sullivan and Avril D. Haines, who oversaw the development of Obama’s drone strike playbook and is now Biden’s director of national intelligence, raised the possibility of toughening Trump-era rules and procedures. to reduce risk. risk of civilian casualties and pushback from overuse of drone strikes, but it doesn’t necessarily go back to the Obama-era system, an official said.

Since Mr. Biden took office, the subsequent interagency review has been overseen primarily by Elizabeth D. Sherwood-Randall, his national security adviser, and Clare Linkins, senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

Biden’s team is also weighing whether to restore an Obama-era order that required the administration to annually release estimates of how many suspected terrorists and civilian bystanders it had killed in airstrikes outside war zones. Obama invoked that requirement in 2016, but Trump removed it in 2019. The military separately publishes some information about its attacks in places like Somalia, but the CIA does not.

While The New York Times reported on Trump’s replacement rules in 2017, the Trump administration never published its drone policy or publicly discussed the parameters and principles that framed it, noted Luke Hartig, who worked as a top counterterrorism aide at Obama’s White. Home.

Stating that there was good reason to believe that the government did not publicly acknowledge the full range of strikes carried out during the Trump administration, Hartig said it was appropriate for Biden’s team to gather more information on that period before deciding whether and how. do it. change the system that governed it.

“There is a lot the administration needs to do to reestablish higher standards after the Trump administration, but they shouldn’t just go back to Obama’s rules,” he said. “The world has changed. The fight against terrorism has evolved. “

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