WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama left plenty of ambiguity in new policy guidelines that he said will restrict how and when the U.S. can launch targeted drone strikes, leaving himself significant power over how and when the weapons can be deployed.
National security experts said it is imperative to leave some room in the guidelines, given the evolving fight against terrorism. Civil rights advocates argued that too little has been revealed about the program to ensure its legality, even as the president takes steps to remove some of the secrecy.
“Obama said that there would be more limits on targeted killings, a step in the right direction,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “But a mere promise that the US will work within established guidelines that remain secret provides little confidence that the US is complying with international law.”
An unclassified version of the newly established drone guidelines was made public Thursday in conjunction with Obama’s wide-ranging address on U.S. counterterrorism policies. Congress’ intelligence committees and the Capitol Hill leadership have been briefed on the more detailed, classified policies, but because those documents are secret, there’s no way of knowing how much more clarity they provide.
The president already has been using some of the guidelines to determine when to launch drone strikes, administration officials said. Codifying the strictest standards, they argue, will ultimately reduce the number of approved attacks.
Among the newly public rules is a preference for capturing suspects instead of killing them, which gives the U.S. an opportunity to gather intelligence and disrupt terrorist plots. The guidelines also state that a target must pose a continuing and imminent threat to the U.S.
However, the public guidelines don’t spell out how the U.S. determines whether capture is feasible, nor does it define what constitutes an imminent threat.
Former State Department official James Andrew Lewis said Obama must retain some flexibility, given the fluid threats facing the U.S.
“The use of force and engagement of force always require a degree of discretion,” said Lewis, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We don’t want to change that.”
The guidelines also mandate that the U.S. have “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed in a strike. Civilian deaths, particularly in Pakistan, have angered local populations and contributed to a rise in anti-American sentiments in the volatile region.
Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who has filed many court cases on behalf of drone victims’ families, said that while he appreciated Obama’s concern about civilian casualties, he wasn’t confident the new guidelines would change U.S. actions.
“The problem remains the same because there is no transparency and accountability for the CIA because it will remain inside the system and not be visible to outsiders,” he said.