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White House Tightens Rules on Counterterrorism Drone Strikes


WASHINGTON — President Biden has signed a classified policy limiting counterterrorism drone strikes outside conventional war zones, tightening rules that President Donald J. Trump had loosened for a Twenty first-century approach to warfare, in keeping with officials.

The policy, which the White House sent to the Pentagon and the C.I.A. on Friday, institutionalizes a version of temporary limits that Mr. Biden’s team quietly put in place on the day of his inauguration as a stopgap for reducing risks to civilians while the brand new administration reviewed the counterterrorism policies it had inherited from Mr. Trump.

An outline of the policy, together with a classified recent counterterrorism strategy memo Mr. Biden has also signed, suggests that amid competing priorities in a turbulent world, the USA intends to launch fewer drone strikes and commando raids away from recognized war zones than it has within the recent past.

The policy requires Mr. Biden’s approval before a suspected terrorist is added to a listing of those that might be targeted for “direct motion,” in a return to a more centralized control of choices about targeted killing operations that was a trademark of President Barack Obama’s second term. Mr. Trump had given commanders in the sphere greater latitude to make a decision whom to focus on.

The Latest York Times has not seen a duplicate of the classified document, which officials call the P.P.M., for presidential policy memorandum. Nevertheless it was described by a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to elucidate its key elements.

In an announcement, Liz Sherwood-Randall, Mr. Biden’s homeland security adviser who oversaw a 20-month review that led to the changes, acknowledged that the policy had been accomplished and characterised it as directing the federal government to be “discerning and agile in protecting Americans against evolving global terrorist challenges.”

She added: “The president’s guidance on the usage of lethal motion and capture operations outside areas of energetic hostilities requires that U.S. counterterrorism operations meet the very best standards of precision and rigor, including for identifying appropriate targets and minimizing civilian casualties.”

The Biden administration’s rules apply to strikes in poorly governed places where Islamist militants are energetic but that the USA doesn’t consider to be “areas of energetic hostilities.”

Only Iraq and Syria — where U.S. troops and partners are fighting the remnants of the Islamic State — are currently deemed to be conventional war zones where the brand new rules won’t apply and commanders in the sphere will retain greater latitude to order counterterrorism airstrikes or raids without looking for White House approval, the official said.

Meaning the principles will limit any such operations in several other countries where the USA has carried out drone strikes lately, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, in addition to the tribal region of Pakistan.

The variety of counterterrorism raids and drone strikes in several of the affected countries had been decreasing lately. The last U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen were in 2018 and 2019, in keeping with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. In August, a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The policy requires “near certainty” that a goal is a member of a terrorist group approved for so-called “direct motion” and “near certainty” that no civilians can be killed or injured before pulling the trigger, the official said.

The policy is claimed to declare that capturing is preferable to killing, requiring the military and the C.I.A. to judge the feasibility of a capture operation. It also requires them to acquire the consent of the State Department’s chief of mission in a rustic before carrying out an operation there, the official said.

By limiting targeting approval to specific, named people, the policy doesn’t authorize a tactic that will increase the danger of mistakes that kill civilians: so-called signature strikes, attacking people without knowing their identities based on patterns that raised suspicions.

Still, the principles permit looking for Mr. Biden’s permission for other varieties of strikes in extraordinary circumstances. And the principles don’t require White House approval for strikes carried out in self-defense, comparable to the so-called collective self-defense of partner forces.

Many strikes in Somalia, where U.S. forces are helping to accumulate government troops battling the militant group Al Shabab, have been justified as collective self-defense of partners — including one on Sept. 18 that the military said killed 27 Shabab fighters who had attacked Somali forces.

Counterterrorism drone strikes targeting militants in distant and poorly governed regions — where there aren’t any police to arrest people plotting terrorist attacks — have develop into a recent type of warfare, raising legal and policy dilemmas. 4 presidents have now grappled with easy methods to use and constrain the technology.

The C.I.A. used a novel armed drone to kill a militant in 2002, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Within the 2002 attack, the strike destroyed a automobile carrying a suspected member of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the data? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable prior to now? Can we corroborate the data? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a final resort. The reporter and no less than one editor know the identity of the source.

By the top of the George W. Bush administration, the federal government had acquired many more armed drones, and airstrikes in tribal regions of Pakistan were soaring.

Drone strikes increased still further early within the Obama administration, including in Yemen with the emergence of a dangerous Qaeda affiliate. And because the frequency of airstrikes increased, so did botched ones wherein the military or the C.I.A. mistakenly killed civilians.

In 2013, Mr. Obama sought to impose greater control over drone warfare by issuing recent limits on “direct motion” operations away from war zones. In 2017, Mr. Trump replaced those guidelines with a looser algorithm, which Mr. Biden put aside in January 2021.

Mr. Biden’s rules are said to declare that the USA will perform such strikes in other countries consistent with domestic and international law — each areas where the federal government’s interpretations have been the topic of some dispute.

As a matter of domestic law, the federal government has generally claimed that it has legal authority to attack terrorism suspects under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks. Presidents in each parties have stretched that law beyond the unique version of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to cover many other groups and places.

As a matter of international law, the policy is claimed to not delve into the circumstances wherein the USA believes it may possibly perform strikes in a foreign country without the consent of its government under a disputed theory that local authorities are unwilling or unable to suppress a threat emanating from their territory.

The policy also says that to be placed on the kill-or-capture list, a goal have to be deemed a “continuing and imminent threat to U.S. individuals,” the official said.

For now, the Biden administration isn’t making public the text of its drone strike rules. Neither is it releasing a classified national security memo encapsulating a recent international counterterrorism strategy, the event of which Ms. Sherwood-Randall oversaw in parallel.

The strategy is claimed to reply to how the terrorist threat has evolved over time — it’s more diffuse, ideologically diverse and geographically dispersed — and the necessity for the USA to prioritize threats amid competing problems and resource constraints, including those involving Russia, China, cybersecurity, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

The strategy can be said to emphasise other technique of reducing the danger of terrorism, including working with partner forces and supporting overseas civilian law enforcement abilities, while reserving U.S. kinetic motion as a tool where merited.

Under Mr. Trump’s system, the White House approved “country plans” that set broad standards for particular areas, wherein operators had greater latitude to pick targets.

The Biden system still envisions country plans that can include things like local logistics and identifying which militant groups operating there are eligible for targeting.

The brand new counterterrorism rules are distinct from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s efforts to strengthen the Pentagon procedures aimed toward stopping civilian deaths in military operations generally. That features conventional battlefield zones, which Afghanistan was still considered to be in August 2021, when a botched military drone strike in Kabul killed 10 innocent people amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.

The review also weighed whether to revive an Obama directive, rescinded by Mr. Trump, that had required the federal government to annually disclose its best understanding of what number of militants and civilians it had killed in counterterrorism airstrikes. Congress has individually required the military to make public a few of that information.

But for now, the White House has not restored the Obama-era directive as applied to the C.I.A. The official said whether and easy methods to construct on the disclosure law was still into consideration.

Still, the review did lock down some higher standards than ones that apparently prevailed within the Trump era.

The Biden-era standard of “near certainty” that no civilians can be killed applies equally to adult men in a possible strike zone as to women and youngsters, the official said. The Trump-era rules also had an ordinary of “near certainty” that no civilians could be harmed in a strike but are said to have allowed systematic exceptions as long as bureaucratic procedures were followed.

Officials accustomed to the matter have described some country plans within the Trump era, which remain classified, as permitting a lower standard — “reasonable certainty” no civilians could be hurt — in assessing the status of adult men in a possible strike zone.

Nevertheless it stays unclear what the “near certainty” standard means in practice. The military announced this month that it had carried out a strike in Somalia that apparently killed Abdullahi Nadir, a longtime Shabab leader.

The military initially said he was the one person killed within the strike — but later realized that a second person, also believed to be a Shabab militant, was also killed, in keeping with officials accustomed to the matter. The 2 were apparently in a automobile on the time of the attack.

Senior officials on the Pentagon and the White House have questioned how operators could have met the “near certainty” standard in the event that they didn’t realize a second person was present. An Africa Command spokesperson acknowledged that the strike was under review.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Stuttgart, Germany.

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