While publicly vaunting drone strike reforms allegedly aimed at minimizing civilian deaths, President Barack Obama secretly loosened the standards for covert attacks in Pakistan, likely paving the way for the killing and wounding of an unknown number of non-combatants, the Wall Street Journal revealed Sunday.
The news follows last week's revelation that CIA drone strikes in January killed one U.S. and one Italian hostage in Pakistan and comes amid mounting calls for the U.S. to come clean regarding all civilians killed in its covert war—not just Western ones.
The new reporting sheds light on the Presidential Policy Guidelines (pdf), which were announced by Obama in May 2013 and allegedly impose the requirement that "before lethal action may be taken," U.S. forces are required to attain "near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed." Furthermore, the policy states that the U.S. "will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons."
The reforms were ostensibly designed to minimize civilian deaths, and they came in response to growing international outrage over the large numbers of non-combatants killed and wounded in U.S. drone attacks.
However, according to the Wall Street Journal's reporting, Pakistan was exempted from these alleged reforms. Journalist Adam Entous writes:
Under a classified addendum to the directive approved by Mr. Obama, however, the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan was exempted from the “imminent threat” requirement, at least until U.S. forces completed their pullout from Afghanistan.
The exemption in the case of Pakistan means that the CIA can do signature strikes and more targeted drone attacks on militant leaders who have been identified without collecting specific evidence that the target poses an imminent threat to the U.S. Being part of the al Qaeda core in Pakistan is justification enough in the Obama administration’s eyes.
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Entous posits, "If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before" the strike that killed the two Western hostages.
Fox News confirmed this reporting on Monday, stating that a military intelligence source said "there are indeed looser rules in effect for CIA strikes in Pakistan."
The secret exemption has large implications, as Pakistan is the country most heavily targeted by U.S. drone strikes since 2004. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 962 civilians have been killed and 1,722 wounded in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2015.
However, Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, told Common Dreams that Pakistan is not the only country exempted from supposed drone reforms. "This is part of a pattern where the administration announces reforms to drone strike policy that never happen or were eviscerated through exemption, or reversed," said Naiman.
For example, the Obama administration admitted last year that the "near certainty" requirement does not apply to the war on the so-called Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Rolling Stone revealed earlier this year that the U.S. still considers Afghanistan an "area of active hostilities" and therefore the drone reforms do not apply to that country either.
Given the intense secrecy surrounding U.S. drone attacks, it is unclear what impact, if any, the administration's reforms had on reducing civilian deaths.