On Aug. 6, following an order by a federal judge in a suit brought by the ACLU, President Obama finally released his “playbook” for the use of lethal force against terrorist targets. The guidance—more specifically, the “procedures for approving direct action against terrorist targets located outside the United States and areas of active hostilities”—is another positive step towards transparency and minimizing harm to civilians in conflict zones—both promises Obama has been making for at least three years. But as detailed as the procedures are, they are still lacking in key definitions and in providing any meaningful insight into how, or whether, the procedures are being followed.
For example, the procedures for approval are more restrictive when the proposed target is a “high value terrorist”, and when that individual’s activities “pose a continuing, imminent threat.” But what constitutes high value? And what constitutes imminent? The procedures also allow for departing from an existing operational plan when “fleeting opportunities” arise. What constitutes a “fleeting opportunity,” and does this differ from an “imminent” threat?
Other important questions are still unanswered. With such a detailed procedure for approving the use of force in place, including the requirement that there be a “near certainty” non-combatants won’t be harmed, why are so many still killed by U.S. air and drone strikes? And why, when there is an allegation of civilian harm, does the administration take so long to acknowledge alleged harm? Although the procedures lay out a seven-step process for conducting After Action Reports, which are meant to assess the number of combatants killed or wounded, as well as any collateral damage, these reports are still secret. The administration should make these reports—or at least an unclassified summary—publicly available and open to scrutiny to ensure harmed civilians can be properly recognized.
Earlier this summer, President Obama issued an Executive Order on pre- and post-strike policy aimed at mitigating civilian harm, which, with the addition of these procedures for using force, goes a long way toward promoting transparency. But the administration still fails on two important accounts: providing any substantial evidence of if and how his guidance is being followed, and convening an independent investigation to determine whether the weaponized drone program works at all. Until then, civilians caught in conflicts will continue to suffer unnecessarily.