Under former President Barack Obama, covert operations flourished with the widely-adopted use of killer drones, though some internal policies sought to keep those potentially boundless war powers in check.
Now, as many feared, it seems that his successor President Donald Trump is seeking to undo those restraints, making it easier to order attacks outside of war zones, without approval or oversight, and lowering the standard for what defines an "acceptable" civilian casualty.
On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump has granted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) broad powers to conduct lethal drone strikes. While the CIA under Obama was by no means "handcuffed," as journalist Jeremy Scahill put it, the former president tried to keep covert operations limited to the Department of Defense's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) unit.
As Axios' Shannon Vavra explains, the new policy change matters because "[t]he CIA doesn't have to report the number of terrorists or civilians it kills during a drone strike. The Pentagon had to report that publicly. Now the numbers of strikes might increase without public disclosures."
At the same time, reporting by the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung late Monday revealed that the Trump administration is also considering a number of changes to Presidential Policy Guidance, also known as the Drone Playbook, issued by the Obama administration in 2013.
Speaking with senior U.S. officials, Jaffe and DeYoung report that the proposed changes to counter-terrorism strategy "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 White House is considering relaxing this standard, which currently "demands near- certainty that no civilians are killed or injured in U.S. raids or drone strikes outside conflict zones. One possibility being considered," WaPo reports, "could demand a near-certainty that no women or children are killed, but impose a different standard for military-age males. Or the White House could choose to waive the more stringent rules in certain geographical areas for certain periods of time."
Perhaps "the most vulnerable standard," according to one U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the discussions, is that U.S. officials must prove that a potential target outside of a war zone poses a "continuing and imminent threat to Americans" before action is taken.
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This requirement "has made it much harder to provide air or drone support to U.S. allies when they are under fire from groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in places such as Yemen, Libya and Somalia," officials say. But "[f]or Obama, the high standard ensured that local partner forces did not come to depend on American air support and that the U.S. military did not inadvertently slide down a slippery slope into larger-scale combat operations or even war," WaPo observed.
Jaffe and DeYoung note that the changes are being considered by the topmost officials with the National Security Council (NSC). Notably, Trump's controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon was appointed to the NSC's Principals Committee shortly after the inauguration.
Further, as more unnamed officials told the New York Times, the Trump administration has already declared "parts of three provinces of Yemen to be an 'area of active hostilities,'' which reporter Charlie Savage notes "opened the door" to the late January raid that killed dozens of Yemeni civilians and a U.S service member, as well as the "largest-ever series of American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago."
According to Savage, "Mr. Trump is also expected to sign off soon on a similar Pentagon proposal to designate parts of Somalia to be another such battlefield-style zone for 180 days, removing constraints on airstrikes and raids targeting people suspected of being militants with the Qaeda-linked group the Shabab, [the officials] said."
The "temporary suspension of the limits" in these regions, Savage notes, are seen "as a test run" for the wider expansion of war powers, which has many within the national security establishment concerned about the potential for blow-back as Trump has also sought to decrease money for international aid and other diplomacy measures.
On Sunday, more than three dozen members of America's national security establishment, including experts and former government officials, sent Defense Secretary James Mattis a letter asking that the administration maintain "existing high standards...for uses of force outside traditional war zones" and "continue to prioritize civilian protection." Doing otherwise, the letter warns, "can cause significant strategic setbacks."
Before leaving office, Obama published a report and presidential memo outlining the scope of U.S. military operations as well as the "legal and policy frameworks" for deployment of the "use of military force and related national security operations." This was largely seen as an attempt to outline the "minimum standards that the next administration should meet and improve upon," as Laura Pitter, U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, said at the time.