The US presidential guidelines for drone strikes, released on Friday night, authorise the head of an agency to order an attack on a terrorist target in a foreign land without the president’s approval.
The Presidential Policy Guidance, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says the US president has to personally approve a drone strike if the target is a US citizen, but not if the target is a non-American in a foreign land.
The presidential approval is also needed for a so-called “signature” strike when the specific identity of a target isn’t known, just his role.
Although not named in the document, Pakistan is the most targeted foreign land as the United States has conducted more drone strikes in this country than anywhere else in the world.
Presidential assent needed if person to be targeted is US citizen or a permanent resident of US
Data collected by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that US drone strikes in Pakistan began on June 17, 2004 and so far there have been a total of 423 such strikes.
The US Central Intelligence Agency carried out most of these strikes while the US military also conducted some.
The strikes have killed 2,499 to 4,001 people, including between 424 and 966 civilians.
There have been nearly nine times more strikes under President Obama in Pakistan than there were under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The policy that Obama adopted in 2013 also seeks presidential approval if the target is a permanent resident of the US, that is, a green card holder.
The presidential approval is also needed when “there is a lack of consensus” among US agency chiefs about whom to target.
In all other cases, the head of the nominating agency can approve the attack if all of the major national security officials unanimously agree it should be undertaken. The US president is simply “apprised” of the targeting decision.
The document says that US officials can approve a drone strike if they make “an assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation”.
The US media interpreted this as suggesting that US officials can order a strike even if there’s reason to believe it might be possible to capture someone at some later point.
The policy suggests placing suspects on a target list through a nomination process, explaining that the decision to target a person is taken after considering all other possibilities and with the consent of all agencies and officials involved.
The document, however, allows the president to bypass the process whenever he sees fit, particularly in situations where those in danger of a terrorist attack are not Americans but “another country’s persons”.
The policy also includes procedures for last-minute variations to a targeting plan when “fleeting opportunities” arise.
All such changes must be approved by the president.
The guidelines also explain the procedure for briefing the US Congress on drone strikes.
According to the document, Congressional leaders get an update on the so-called “high-value targets” at least every three months.
The document includes strict rules for avoiding civilian casualties, but the US media noted that such restrictions have not always been particularly effective in avoiding civilian deaths.
There are dozens of redactions in the document released to ACLU but it does not explain why those data were blacked out.