The American Civil Liberties Union had a successful FOIA request that yielded a document explaining how the Obama Administration approves actions to kill suspected terrorists. I learned about the release from this good article.
What follows are just my personal angles, not a comprehensive treatment of the document.
First, I don’t know why these policies haven’t been in the public domain from the get go. And given that they were kept secret in the first place I don’t know why the Administration fought this in court rather than just coughing up the document when the FOIA arrived. There is some blacked out material in the document but nothing in the actual release needs to be secret.
Second, this document is commonly described as the “drone playbook” and this is probably a reasonable way to think of it but, so far as I can tell, the policies apply generally to anti-terrorist actions, not only to drone strikes.
Third, I’m really struck by the constant use of the term “near certainty” which appears eight times in eighteen pages. For example, two prerequisites for green-lighting an attack are near certainty that the target is there and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
Despite the legalistic nature of the document I don’t see a definition of “near certainty.” To me it would imply that air attacks should rarely fail to hit their intended targets and civilian casualties should also be rare – maybe in one strike out of a hundred there could be civilian casualties or the target could turn out to be somewhere else.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even describe ninety-nine in a hundred as “near certainty”. Before crossing the street I expect near certainty that I won’t get struck by a car. If I had only 99% certainty of crossing safely then I’d get hurt within a matter of weeks.
I am skeptical that there are many, if any, air strikes that are conducted under conditions of near certainty. I can seriously entertain the possibility that US planners of air attacks are surprised in cases when the target is not there or when civilians are harmed. But are these planners dumbfounded every time a drone strike goes awry as would be implied by the “near certainty” standard? I doubt it.
Indeed, Chris Woods of Airwars just wrote this in the New York Times:
Official White House data on counterterrorism actions in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere show civilians dying on average once every seven airstrikes.
I believe that Chris’ claim comes from here. This official document says there have been 473 air strikes against terrorists and between 64 and 116 civilian deaths in these strikes. This averages out at one death per 7 airstrikes or one death per 4 airstrikes depending on whether you take the minimum or the maximum number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths (and Chris says there have been many unacknowledged civilian deaths as well). Plus there must have been many civilian injuries.
This really doesn’t sound to me like near certainty that there will be no civilian casualties in antiterrorist air strikes.
Fourth, the document giving the official numbers on antiterrorist air strikes seems to have another inconsistency with the document spelling out the policies governing these strikes. The policy document brings to mind a room filled with lawyers and policy experts deliberating on the individuals “nominated” to be targeted. (Are they really terrorists? Is it possible to capture them rather than killing them? Is waiting a viable option?). But the numbers documents says that 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed in the 473 strikes. Did the experts really know who all these people were and deliberate carefully on each one of them? I doubt it.
I could only speculate on who is fooling whom here so I won’t do it. But I don’t feel like the Obama Administration has really been following its stated guidelines on actions against terrorist targets.