Washington- The Trump administration is close to finishing a review that would make it easier for the Pentagon to launch counterterrorism strikes anywhere in the world by lowering the threshold on acceptable civilian casualties and scaling back other constraints imposed by the Obama administration, senior US officials said.
According to the Washington Post, the ongoing review, which is being considered at senior levels of the National Security Council, would undo a series of rules that former president Barack Obama imposed, beginning in 2013, to rein in drone operations outside active war zones.
The changes to the Obama-era Presidential Policy Guidance would empower the Pentagon to make decisions on targets without approval from the White House and potentially scrap the “near-certainty” standard of no civilian deaths for strikes outside war zones. The Trump plans are also likely to relax the requirement that potential terror targets pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to US personnel, officials said.
A senior administration official said that the Trump White House remained committed to a standard above the minimum requirement mandated by the international law of armed conflict that governs most military operations.
“Some standard above (that) is wise,” the official said.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the Department of Defense preferred not to coordinate with the White House on every planned operation to strike terrorists.
“We are seeking ways to accelerate our operations against terror groups, and be more nimble and agile in our speed of response,” said Davis. “But we always will maintain a commitment to minimizing, avoiding civilian casualties.”
In a letter released Friday, 37 former top US officials, most of whom served in the Obama administration, urged Trump to move cautiously when modifying or overturning restrictions imposed in recent years. On the issue of civilian casualties, the signatories pressed Trump to stick with the current approach.
“Even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries . . . can cause significant setbacks,” the letter warned.
A document that was published by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2016 revealed that Obama selected drone targets in areas outside war zones.
The partially redacted document was released at the time as a result of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, which had long sparred with the government over America’s secretive drone program.
According to Agence France Presse, the 18-page Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) provided more details than the government had previously revealed on how drone strikes were approved.
“Actions, including lethal action against designated terrorist targets, shall be as discriminating and precise as reasonably possible,” the PPG stated.
The policy document said that “absent extraordinary circumstances,” a drone strike on a high-value target will only be taken if there is “near certainty” no civilians will be killed, and said the United States should respect another nation’s sovereignty in weighing drone strikes.