WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has quietly introduced temporary limits to combat drone strikes and command attacks outside conventional battlefield zones such as Afghanistan and Syria, and officials have begun a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations .
The military and the CIA must now get the White House permission to attack suspected terrorists in poorly controlled places where there are small U.S. ground troops, such as Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, they had been allowed to decide for themselves whether the conditions on the ground met certain conditions, and an attack was justified.
The Biden administration did not announce the new boundaries. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued the order on January 20, the day of President Biden’s inauguration, officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
Possible changes as a result of the review would be the latest twist in a protracted development of rules for drone attacks outside conventional battlefield zones, an intermittent gray area combat action that has become central to America’s long-running counter-terrorism wars that took root in response to the attacks on 11 September 2001.
Counterterrorism drone warfare has reached its fourth administration with Mr. Biden. As President Barack Obama’s Vice President, Mr. Biden was part of a former administration that oversaw a major escalation in targeted killings using remote-controlled aircraft in his first term and then introduced significant new restrictions on practice in his second term.
While the Biden administration still allows the fight against terrorism outside of active war zones, the further review and the bureaucratic obstacles it has imposed may explain an enjoyment in such operations. The U.S. military’s Africa command has carried out about half a dozen airstrikes in the calendar year in Somalia targeting Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda – but all were before January 20.
Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, acknowledged that Mr. Biden had issued “temporary guidance” on the use of military force and related national security operations.
“The purpose of the Preliminary Guidance is to ensure that the President has full visibility of proposed significant actions in these areas, while the National Security Council staff conducts a thorough review of the Agency’s review of the current powers and delegations of the President’s authority in these matters. , “Mrs. Said Horne.
Although Mr. Trump significantly eased the boundaries of counter-terrorism outside of war zones, less happened on his watch than under Mr. Obama. This is mainly because the war against Al Qaeda and its divided, morphing offspring continues to change.
Especially under Mr. Obama’s first term saw a sharp rise in drone strikes targeting Qaeda’s suspects in the Pakistani tribal family and in rural Yemen. Mr. Obama broke new ground by deciding to approve the deliberate killing in 2011 of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim priest who was part of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.
Then, after the Islamic State emerged in Iraq and Syria, its “caliphate” became a magnet for jihadists during Mr. Obama’s last year and much of Mr. Trump presidency. But the region controlled by ISIS was considered a conventional war zone, so air strikes did not raise the same new legal and political issues as targeted killings away from so-called hot battlefields.
The Biden administration’s review of the legal and policy framework for targeting is still in its infancy. Officials are said to be collecting data, as are official estimates of civilian casualties in both military and CIA strikes outside battlefield zones in the Trump era. No decisions have been made on what the new rules will be, Ms Horne said.
“This review includes a review of past approaches to the development of counter-terrorism threats to refine our approach going forward,” she said. “In addition, the review will seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures.”
Among the issues that are said to be under consideration is whether to tighten a limit designed to prevent the loss of civilian spectators in such operations. The current rules generally require “almost certainty” that no women or children are present in the strike zone, but the Trump team apparently allowed operators to use a lower standard with only “reasonable certainty” that no civilian adult men would likely be killed, officials said.
Allowing the greater risk of killing civilian men made it easier for the military and the CIA to meet the standards for firing missiles. But it is also routine for civilian men to be armed in the kinds of lawless badlands and failed states for which the rules are written.
Among the compromises being discussed, officials said resources for intelligence gathering are limited. For example, keeping surveillance drones over a potential strike zone for an extended period of time to see who is coming and going means making them less accessible to other operations.
Biden administration officials are also discussing whether to write general rules that are more strictly applied than the Trump-era system was sometimes in practice. They discovered that the Trump system was very flexible and allowed officials to develop strikes procedures in certain countries using lower standards than those set out in the general policy, so the administration’s guarantees were sometimes stronger on paper than in reality.
Officials are also confronted with a broader philosophical question: whether to return to the Obama-era approach, which was characterized by centralized oversight and high-level intelligence of individual suspected terrorism, or to maintain something closer to the Trump-era approach, which was looser and more decentralized.
Under the previous rules, which Mr. Obama codified in a 2013 order, known as the PPG, an acronym for presidential policy guidance, a suspect had to pose a “persistent and imminent threat” to Americans in order to be targeted outside a war zone. The system resulted in several interagent meetings to discuss whether certain suspects met this standard.
Mr. Obama imposed his rules after the frequency of counter-terrorism strikes increased in tribal Pakistan and rural Yemen, prompting recurring controversies about civilian deaths and a growing impression that armed drones – a new technology that made it easier to fire missiles at suspected enemies in regions that were difficult to reach – got out of control.
But military and intelligence operators chafed below the limits of the 2013 rules, complaining that the process had become prone to overly lawful and endless meetings. In October 2017, Mr. scrapped. Trump this system and introduced a different set of political standards and procedures for the use of lethal force outside war zones.
His successor was instead centered on creating general standards for strikes and raids in specific countries. It allowed the military and the CIA to target suspects based on their status as members of a terrorist group, even though they were only infantry jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles. And it allowed operators to decide whether to perform specific actions.
During the change of president, Mr. Sullivan and Avril D. Haines, who was responsible for the development of Mr. Obama’s drone strike gamebook and now Mr. Biden’s director of national intelligence, the prospect of tightening Trump – era rules and procedures to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and setbacks from excessive use of drone strikes, but not necessarily all the way back to the Obama – era system, said an official.
Since Mr. Biden took office, the subsequent interagency review has been primarily overseen by Elizabeth D. Sherwood-Randall, his home country’s security adviser, and Clare Linkins, senior director of counter-terrorism at the National Security Council.
The Biden team is also considering whether to restore order in the Obama era, which had required the government to publish annual estimates of how many suspected terrorists and civilian spectators it had killed in airstrikes outside war zones. Sir. Obama invoked this claim in 2016, but Mr. Trump removed it in 2019. The military publishes separate information about its strikes in places like Somalia, but the CIA does not.
While the New York Times reported on Mr. Trump’s replacement rules in 2017, the Trump administration never released its drone policy or publicly discussed the parameters and principles framed, noted Luke Hartig, who worked as a top aide to fight terrorism in Mr. Obama’s White House.
Allegation that there was good reason to believe that the government did not publicly recognize the full range of strikes carried out under Mr. Trump, Hartig said, it was appropriate for the Biden team to gather more information about this period before deciding whether and how to change the system that governed it.
“There is a lot that the administration needs to do to reintroduce higher standards after the Trump administration, but they should not just go back to the Obama rules,” he said. “The world has changed. The fight against terrorism has evolved. ”