A newly disclosed White House “playbook” for using drone strikes overseas requires “near certainty” civilians will not be killed or hurt, though one expert says the rules may provide a guide to terrorists looking for a safe haven.
“The bad guys know all they have to do is hang around their families and they have a bubble of protection around themselves,” said Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “While America does its darndest not to hurt innocent people, a policy like that basically gives (terrorists) a recipe on how to protect themselves.”
The redacted “presidential policy guidance,” released Friday in response to a freedom of information act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, stipulates that the U.S., when operating outside areas of active hostilities, will only take direct action when there is “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present and that noncombatants won’t be killed or injured. Lethal force also can be undertaken only against a lawful target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to Americans.
“You hear that, and what is going on in the back of your mind is, unless you can find Osama Bin Laden wandering out in the desert going to the bathroom, you’ll never take a shot,” Bucci said.
The Obama administration’s “playbook” of principles provided more detail on the conditions for drone strikes and other direct action than the White House revealed when it summarized the document in a fact sheet in 2013.
Obama or his aides have spoken previously, though, about the “near certainty” standard at the heart of the guidance — a standard that hasn’t silenced criticism over civilian deaths from drones.
Ned Price, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said in a statement yesterday that the policy standards “offer protections for civilians that exceed the requirements of the law of armed conflict.”
“As the president has said, ‘near certainty’ is the ‘highest standard we can set,’ ” Price said.
But Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said questions remain about where the guidance applies, whether Obama has waived its requirements in particular instances, and how the “relatively stringent standards can be reconciled with the accounts of eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights researchers who have documented large numbers of bystander casualties.”
Herald wire services contributed to this report.
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