Documents released on Friday night dealing with the US presidential guidelines for drone strikes permits the head of an agency to order an attack on a terrorist target in a foreign land without acquiring the president’s approval.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Presidential Policy Guidance claims that the US president has to personally authorize a drone strike if the target is a non-American in a foreign land.
The presidential approval is also required for a supposed “signature” strike when the exact identity of a target is unknown, just his role.
Although it is not named in the document, Pakistan is the most targeted foreign land since the United States has carried out more drone strikes in the country more than anywhere else in the world.
London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism released data showing that US drone strikes in Pakistan commenced on June 17, 2004 and since then there have been a total of 423 strikes. Some of these strikes were carried out by the US Central Intelligence Agency and others by US military.
The strikes have killed 2,499 to 4,001 people, including about 966 civilians.
During President Obama’s administration, there have been almost nine times more strikes in Pakistan than there were under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama’s policy which was adopted in 2013 also sought for presidential approval if the target is a permanent resident of the US, one that is a green card holder. The presidential approval is also mandatory when “there is a lack of consensus” among US agency chiefs with regards whom to target.
In other cases, the head of the nominating agency can consent to the attack if all major national security officials unanimously agree it should be carried out. The US president is just “apprised” of the targeting decision.
According to the document, US officials can execute a drone strike if they make “an assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation”. This was interpreted by the US media as saying that US officials can order a strike although there is a slim chance for someone to be captured at a later point.
Suspects can be placed on a target list through a nomination process, with the decision to target a person after all possibilities are considered and the consent of agencies and officials involved.
However, the document permits the president to bypass the process when he so desires, especially in situations where those endangered are not Americans but “another country’s persons”.
The policy also highlights methods for last-minute changes to a targeting plan when “fleeting opportunities” arise. The president must approve of all the changes.
Procedures were also mentioned in the guidelines as to how to brief the US Congress on drone strikes. Based on the document, Congressional leaders can get updates on the supposed “high-value targets” at least every three months.
Moreover, the document has strict rules for avoiding civilian casualties but the US media pointed out that such limitations have failed in preventing civilian deaths.
Several redactions were seen in the document that was released to ACLU but it has failed in explaining why those data were blacked out.