How Obama’s speech provided little clarity on drone strikes

Micah Zenko writes: There were a series of pre- and post-speech leaks to influential national security reporters which suggested that Obama would limit drone targets. Two hours before the speech there was also an embargoed conference call with three anonymous administration officials (you can probably guess who they were), which provided some clarity. President Obama also reportedly met with foreign policy columnists after his speech, including Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt, and Gerald Seib.

These sources told us three things:

First, the new classified presidential policy guidance contains a “preference that the United States military have the lead for the use of force…beyond Afghanistan where we are fighting against al-Qaida and its associated forces,” according to one official. “The White House plan is for the Defense Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years,” wrote Mark Mazzetti. In contrast, Greg Miller determined that “Obama’s New Drone Policy Leaves Room for CIA Role.” On Tuesday, White House correspondent Peter Baker contended that ending CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is not assured, but will be reviewed bi-annually “to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control.”

Second, in responding to a question about military versus CIA operations, another anonymous official said that “the targeting parameters for all lethal actions are uniform,” which I interpreted to mean that they apply no matter who is the lead executive authority. In January 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the same legal principles regarding “direct actions” apply to “all components of the government involved in counterterrorism, be it military or nonmilitary.”

Third, the new guidelines indicate that targets must present a “continuing, imminent threat to Americans,” according to a U.S. official. The New York Times and the Financial Times both wrote that this indicated an end to the controversial practice of “signature strikes” against anonymous military age males whose guilt is determined, in part, by the patterns of their observable behavior. But, on Tuesday, Baker wrote: “For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes’ targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.” Meanwhile, Declan Walsh revealed that this year “the United States cut back on so-called signature strikes against clusters of militant suspects.” So, who knows?

The problem is that, in his speech, President Obama did not directly address any of those issues, nor are they discussed in the declassified summary of the presidential policy guidance. He also did not speak to the longstanding concern of what procedures are in place to mitigate harm to civilians, stating instead: “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.” This is merely an assertion, and it raises further questions about how the Obama administration defines “near-certainty” and what lower standard they were following previously. [Continue reading…]

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