White House releases part of secret drone 'playbook'

White House releases part of secret drone 'playbook'
Staff Sgt. Nelson Cherry inspects an MQ-9 Reaper drone aircraft on Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez / U.S. Air Force)

The Obama administration released a redacted version of its "playbook" for the lethal U.S. drone program, a booklet of presidential guidelines that sets legal standards for deciding who to kill, where and under what circumstances.

The 18-page document was drawn up in May 2013, after President Obama promised greater transparency and oversight on counterterrorism strikes that have targeted thousands of Islamic militants in remote corners of the globe, including Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia.


The administration quietly released the document Friday,  in response to a court order in an open records lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The disclosure comes as the administration has vastly expanded the targeted-killing program, but until recently has refused to acknowledge its existence or answer questions about how targets are chosen.

"The president has emphasized that the U.S. government should be as transparent as possible with the American people about our counterterrorism operations, the manner in which they are conducted, and their results," said Ned Price, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. "Our counterterrorism actions are effective and legal, and their legitimacy is best demonstrated by making public more information about these actions as well as setting clear standards for other nations to follow."

Most matters related to the drone program, run by the CIA and the U.S. military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command, have been hidden from public view.

The administration had earlier released a fact sheet about the "playbook" — officially called the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, following Obama's vows to bring more accountability to the program during a speech at the National Defense University in 2013. But that disclosure lacked detail.

"The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government's counterterrorism policies," said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU. "The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of the powers that will soon be in the hands of another president."

The Obama administration has still never provided basic information needed to assess the drone program, including the names and identities of people killed.

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The document provides a window into the shadowy drone program. It details the "nominations" process for targeting individuals to be killed or captured in countries where the U.S. has not declared war.

It also describes how the U.S. military and intelligence agencies collaborate to review the top-secret evidence against alleged militant leaders, referred to as "high value terrorists," or HVTs, and assess the consequences of operations in what's called "after action reports."

It discloses that the government is not always entirely certain about who it has killed.

"The conditions precedent for any operation, which shall include at a minimum … [a] near certainty that an identified HVT or other lawful terrorist target other than an identified HVT is present," the document said.

It requires "near certainty" that civilians will not be injured or killed;  that capture is "not feasible at the time of the operation;"  that foreign governmental authorities in the country where a strike is to take place "cannot or will not effectively address the threat;" and that "no other reasonable alternatives to lethal action exist."

"[A]ppropriate members" of the National Security Council are to review drone strike proposals before they are sent to the president for a final decision.

If the target is a U.S. citizen, the guidelines state, the Justice Department must weigh in to determine whether the strike is legal. At least eight Americans have been killed by drone attacks, but only one — Anwar Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen — was specifically targeted.

"While this policy guidance appears to set an important precedent for protecting civilians and limiting killings, it is impossible to assess whether and how it's been followed," said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security & Human Rights. "The Obama administration has still never provided basic information needed to assess the drone program, including the names and identities of people killed in the strikes."

The ACLU called the standards "stringent," but said in a statement that the administration has yet to make clear which strikes follow the guidelines in the playbook, and whether the president ever waives them. The ACLU also notes accounts of eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights researchers who have documented large numbers of bystander casualties, suggesting the careful guidelines laid out by the administration are often not followed or are inadequate.


The redacted release of the "playbook" comes after U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in New York ordered the government in February to submit the policy guidance for the court's review. The administration then said it would prepare the redacted version.

Last month, the White House admitted that 64 to 116 civilians had been wrongly killed in 473 strikes launched by the U.S. between the time Obama was inaugurated and the end of last year. The vast majority of the attacks were launched by drones, officials said, but the estimate also covers some strikes using manned aircraft.

It was an unprecedented admission, though human rights and monitoring groups estimate the number of civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes is much higher, from 200 to more than 1,000.

The administration also said that the 473 strikes have killed up to 2,581 people it classified as combatants.

Twitter: @wjhenn