A newly declassified document reveals that the US president and his national security staff play a central role in choosing overseas targets for assassination drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the military.
The 2013 document, informally referred to as the “playbook” for Barack Obama’s signature counterterrorism operations, was released on Saturday by the US justice department as the result of a legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act.
The government-censored document still sheds more light into the bureaucratic machinery of global killing by the US spy agency and its military that Obama will soon pass on to the next president.
The playbook designates the National Security Council (NSC) staff as a body of review over “all operational plans” for either killing or capturing suspected “terrorist” subjects. Once representatives of various cabinet agencies and departments meet to discuss a specific assassination operation, NSC attorneys provide legal input.
It, however, offers no details of how the so-called high-value targets (HVTs) are picked or any geographic limitations, and includes several presidential waivers of its criteria in the event of “fleeting opportunity” to take action.
While the NSC staff plays a role in nominating people for inclusion on the so-called “kill list”, it neither makes the nomination nor involves itself in carrying out a strike or raid, which is conceived by the CIA or the Pentagon.
This is while numerous international law experts have emphasized that the Obama administration’s overall terminology and justification for the deadly drone strikes are rhetorical and without precedent.
ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said the document 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.”
“The government has essentially invented its own set of standards . .. somewhere in between international law covering war zones and outside areas,” he added. “This doesn’t provide any more clarity about the substantive standards the government is using.”
However, Obama’s NSC spokesman Ned Price insisted on legitimacy and transparency of Washington’s targeted killing operations saying: “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.”
Despite such claims of transparency, the administration has waited until Obama’s final months in office to release detailed information on drone and other deadly air strikes. Last month, it published cumulative numbers on how many civilians have been killed by CIA and military strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Libya.
The official figures — 64 to 116 civilians and 2,372 to 2,581 “combatants” in 473 strikes taken in Muslim nations where the US is not at war — were challenged by nongovernment groups as discounting many more civilian deaths.
The numbers do not reflect US drone attacks in the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In case of Syria, the American military is actually backing groups of armed terrorists engaged in a 5-year campaign to oust the existing government.