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What is U.S. policy for drone strikes against terrorists?

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Drone strikes happened in Pakistan and more are expected elsewhere.

Would it help if the United States government would explain its foreign policy with respect for the use of drone technology to strike terrorists? Since the news today is that America killed 13 insurgent terrorists in northwest Pakistan, and since Iraq has requested similar assistance, it makes sense to be as clear as can be about US policy. The White House has been pretty good about explaining such policies, so let’s review what they have published. To make it easier, here is a list of key elements followed by the actual policy, and a reference to today’s news.

List of key elements on the “Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the US Areas of Active Hostilities":

1. These standards and policies have been briefed to Congress since day one of the Obama administration and updated accordingly.

2. It is preferred to capture terrorists rather than to kill them.

3. An important test in determining the “use of lethal force” is to know for certain that the terrorists are trying to kill Americans, or American allies with which we have protection agreements.

4. Continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons

(See the annotated details below.)

The policy gets tricky in the instance of Pakistan where on one hand they are an allied nation state, but on the other hand their military is often conflicted to the point of being aligned with insurgent Taliban and terrorists. Interpretation is more of an art than a legal science.

“Pakistan: 13 killed as US resumes drone strike campaign

The foreign ministry of Pakistan has condemned the strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty

The Guardian, Thursday 12 June 2014 14.03 EDT

US drones have fired missiles at militant hideouts in north-western Pakistan, killing 13 suspected insurgents and marking the resumption of the CIA-led programme after a nearly six-month break, officials said on Thursday.
The Pakistani foreign ministry condemned the strikes as a violation of sovereignty. The attacks came days after a five-hour siege of Karachi airport left 36 people, including 10 militants, dead which raised concerns over Pakistan's ability to deal with the Pakistani Taliban, who said they had carried out the assault along with an Uzbek militant group. It was not immediately clear if the drone strikes were connected to the airport attack. Pakistan had asked the US to halt drone strikes while it was trying to negotiate a peace deal with the militants, but even before the airport siege those talks had largely collapsed.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/12/pakistan-us-drone-strikes

1. These standards and policies have been briefed to Congress since day one of the Obama administration and updated accordingly.
1. These standards and policies have been briefed to Congress since day one of the Obama administration and updated accordingly. James George

1. These standards and policies have been briefed to Congress since day one of the Obama administration and updated accordingly.

“U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism
Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities

Since his first day in office, President Obama has been clear that the United States will
use all available tools of national power to protect the American people from the
terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its associated forces. The President has also
made clear that, in carrying on this fight, we will uphold our laws and values and will
share as much information as possible with the American people and the Congress,
consistent with our national security needs and the proper functioning of the Executive
Branch. To these ends, the President has approved, and senior members of the
Executive Branch have briefed to the Congress, written policy standards and
procedures that formalize and strengthen the Administration’s rigorous process for
reviewing and approving operations to capture or employ lethal force against terrorist
targets outside the United States and outside areas of active hostilities. Additionally,
the President has decided to share, in this document, certain key elements of these
standards and procedures with the American people so that they can make informed
judgments and hold the Executive Branch accountable.

This document provides information regarding counterterrorism policy standards and
procedures that are either already in place or will be transitioned into place over time.
As Administration officials have stated publicly on numerous occasions, we are
continually working to refine, clarify, and strengthen our standards and processes for
using force to keep the nation safe from the terrorist threat. One constant is our
commitment to conducting counterterrorism operations lawfully. In addition, we
consider the separate question of whether force should be used as a matter of policy.
The most important policy consideration, particularly when the United States
contemplates using lethal force, is whether our actions protect American lives.”

The White House
 

2. It is preferred to capture terrorists rather than to kill them.
2. It is preferred to capture terrorists rather than to kill them. John Moore/Getty Images

2. It is preferred to capture terrorists rather than to kill them.

However, when there are tens of thousands of terrorists with which the US may be engaged, capturing may not be feasible. When they are captured, such as the case with the Taliban five, we can only hold them so long at Gitmo before there is pressure to let them go.

So maybe the policy is to cut off the head of the snake whenever you can?

“Preference for Capture

The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a
terrorist suspect, because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather
meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots. Capture operations
are conducted only against suspects who may lawfully be captured or otherwise taken
into custody by the United States and only when the operation can be conducted in
accordance with all applicable law and consistent with our obligations to other
sovereign states."

The White House

 

3. An important test in determining the “use of lethal force” is to know for certain that the terrorists are trying to kill Americans, or American allies with which we have protection agreements.
3. An important test in determining the “use of lethal force” is to know for certain that the terrorists are trying to kill Americans, or American allies with which we have protection agreements. AFP/Getty Images

3. An important test in determining the “use of lethal force” is to know for certain that the terrorists are trying to kill Americans, or American allies with which we have protection agreements.

"“Standards for the Use of Lethal Force

Any decision to use force abroad – even when our adversaries are terrorists dedicated
to killing American citizens – is a significant one. Lethal force will not be proposed or
pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian
court or a military commission. Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks
against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively. In particular, lethal force  will be used outside areas of active hostilities only when the following preconditions
are met:

First, there must be a legal basis for using lethal force, whether it is against a senior
operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or
intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.

Second, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a
continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists
pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a
threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

Third, the following criteria must be met before lethal action may be taken:

1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;

2) Near certainty that non-combatants 1 will not be injured or killed;

3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;

4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where
action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S.
persons; and

5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address
the threat to U.S. persons.

First, there must be a legal basis for using lethal force, whether it is against a senior
operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or
intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks."

The White House

4. Continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons
4. Continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons Getty Images

4. Continuing imminent threat to U.S. persons

This is where the policy can get sketchy. Are the ISIL insurgents in Iraq posing an imminent threat to U.S. citizens? Well, maybe not at the moment, but give them a chance and they might.  You see, this policy is pretty loosey goosey when it comes to interpretation and practical application. Maybe in the instances of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US may have protection agreements with governments that may be invoked to provide assistance to “allies.” Are Iraq and Afghanistan considered allies now?

“Second, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a
continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists
pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a
threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

Third, the following criteria must be met before lethal action may be taken:

1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;

2) Near certainty that non-combatants1 will not be injured or killed;

3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;

4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where
action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S.
persons; and

5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address
the threat to U.S. persons.”

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/2013.05.23_fact_sheet_on_ppg.pdf

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