President Joe Biden tightened rules on conducting drone strikes outside of war zones, requiring that he sign off on the list of eligible targets, The New York Times reported Friday.
The policy Biden signed Friday, which remains classified, says that both Biden and the State Department’s top official in the country of operation must approve targets, signaling that the White House intends to pare down the number of drone strikes, the NYT reported, citing a senior administration official.
Previous policy for eliminating terrorist threats using unmanned aerial vehicles afforded greater latitude to field commanders in determining who to target.
“The president’s guidance on the use of lethal action and capture operations outside areas of active hostilities requires that U.S. counterterrorism operations meet the highest standards of precision and rigor, including for identifying appropriate targets and minimizing civilian casualties,” Biden’s homeland security adviser, Liz Sherwood-Randall, told the NYT.
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The administration’s new policy only applies to areas not considered active war zones, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and rural areas of Pakistan, according to the NYT. In Iraq and Syria, where the Biden administration maintains combat operations against the Islamic State terrorist organization, commanders on the ground will still have the authority to order counterterrorism airstrikes.
The U.S. has not conducted drone strikes in Pakistan, where a Taliban offshoot remains active, or Yemen, since 2018 and 2019 respectively, according to research by the the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
However, the guidance was issued following a slate of counterterrorism strikes in Somalia where the U.S., though not officially engaged in combat operations, is assisting local forces to counter Al Shabaab. U.S. forces conducted an airstrike as recently as Sept. 18 that eliminated 27 terrorists under the justification of “collective self-defense,” the NYT reported.
The U.S. has conducted nine drone strikes in Somalia in 2022, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Overall drone strikes in areas not considered active combat zones have decreased significantly in recent years, the NYT reported.
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The new policy requires the government to be “discerning and agile in protecting Americans against evolving global terrorist challenges,” Sherwood-Randall said, according to the NYT. Sherwood-Randall guided a review of former President Donald Trump’s drone strike policy that began days after Biden took office.
Biden’s new policy does not update a rule, consistent throughout presidential administrations, that requires “near certainty” no civilians will be injured, and also requires “near certainty” the intended target is a member of a terrorist organization approved for direct action, the NYT reported.
Redacted portions of the Trump-era policy conceal the certainty threshold of whether an “intended target of the action is located at the place to be targeted.”
The White House is still considering whether to reintroduce former President Barack Obama’s requirement to disclose the number of civilian casualties, the NYT reported.