What the Drone ‘Playbook’ Really Says About US Counter-Terrorism Policy

Finally. After three years of delays and a lawsuit from the ACLU, President Obama has disclosed his administration’s rules and procedures for conducting “direct action” counter-terrorism operations, including drone strikes.

The “Presidential Policy Guidance” (PPG) on how the United States decides to kill people abroad has been covered in the mainstream press as an important clarification of how death by drone actually works. But the document is somewhat misleading, especially if you don’t have direct experience hunting terrorists.

I do have that kind of experience. I spent a year conducting direct action missions in Afghanistan while attached to a counter-terrorism task force.

Direct action is a polite way of referring to what is commonly known in the military as “kill or capture operations.” Kill or capture is just what it sounds like – operations where the objective is to kill or capture high value targets (HVTs).

Thus, the PPG lays out the procedures not only for drone strikes, but also for the kind of night raids I did in Afghanistan, if conducted somewhere not considered an active war zone (there are some differences when such operations happen in Afghanistan). But the way in which targets are acquired and actioned is roughly the same throughout the military and national security bureaucracy.

So what exactly did the Obama Administration disclose about these operations?

Well, it detailed the careful review process that exists for evaluating how, where, and when the United States kills terrorists. Some of the highlights: President Obama must personally approve a strike against a U.S. citizen; the first priority of direct action should be capture, not lethal force; potential targets must go through an interagency review process to be approved for lethal action; and "near certainty" must exist that noncombatants will not be killed for a potential strike to be authorized.

What no one in the mainstream press has said thus far about the document is how utterly absurd it is to establish a set of rules to govern an assassination program that routinely murders innocent civilians.

First of all, one should be forgiven for thinking that the review process outlined in the PPG governs operations, not individuals. It is somewhat vague on this matter. But it is a crucial point. It is individuals that are approved for assassination; how a given assassination takes place is decided much further down the chain of command.

Once an individual is marked for assassination he enters a "target deck" and is cleared to be engaged by drones, SEALs, manned aircraft – whatever is available. That means that every person he comes into contact with until force is used is potential collateral damage. It is quite disturbing to imagine a 24-year-old soldier sitting a in a windowless room, observing a surveillance feed and wondering, "Who’s the target talking to? Can we kill him too?

And therein lies the absurdity. If anyone other than the targeted individual is ultimately engaged with kinetic action (which happens all the time) than the procedures are meaningless. Where is the interagency and legal review for those individuals, even if they are classified as combatants? It doesn’t exist. Consequently, by authorizing kinetic action against certain individuals, the Obama Administration almost guarantees that people that have not been reviewed will end up dead – and many of them turn out to be innocent civilians.

The PPG does take this into account and authorizes kinetic action against "terrorists" not classified as HVTs. But what this amounts to is a loophole for classifying any unauthorized targets as terrorists, and empowers mid-level decision makers to claim that noncombatants are in fact terrorists in all but the most egregious civilian casualty events.

Another disturbingly illuminating part of the PPG is how it defines "combatants." A combatant is, among other things, "an individual who is targetable in the exercise of national self-defense." I have seen how such definitions play out in my experience, but it doesn’t take any expert knowledge to see what this actually means. If killing X is for the purpose of national self-defense (which is how much of the assassination program is justified), and if Y and Z, who are co-located with X, need to die for X to die, they are combatants! They are guilty by association.

As I mentioned above, the PPG also emphasizes that, whenever possible, direct action operations should seek to capture – rather than kill – suspected terrorists. And when special operations forces conduct night raids, capture is indeed the first priority. But to imply that this is true for the drone war is disingenuous at best.

The drone war developed gradually over several decades in response to operational constraints on the battlefield that made collecting intelligence and actioning targets difficult or impossible. Today, drones are used to kill people in operational environments where the United States does not have the assets and host-country participation necessary to capture terrorism suspects. So the very existence of the drone war is a testament to the fact that much of direct action counter-terrorism policy is devoted exclusively to assassination, not capture.

Regrettably, I have found no examples in the mainstream press where the obfuscations and contradictions of the PPG have been pointed out.

Ultimately what the release of the PPG has done is to clarify why the Obama Administration’s estimate of civilian casualties caused by drones is so much lower than independent estimates. The White House leaves itself every opportunity to claim that a killing is justified and must fess up only when it would be absurd not to, like, for example, if a 10-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl is murdered.

For those of us not privy to the most closely-held classified information about who is killed by direct action operations, it will always be impossible to measure the true efficacy of the drone assassination program. But we do know one undisputed truth: drones kill innocent people. And killing innocent people is simply counterproductive in the war against terrorism. At some point, the United States must devise a strategy for defeating our enemies that does not include killing people that mean us no harm. Sadly, the release of the PPG on direct action shows that we are nowhere near that.

Anthony Walker served 8 years in the Army as a psychological operations specialist, doing three tours in Afghanistan and one in Yemen attached to the embassy in Sana’a. He is currently a college student at Arizona State. Visit his blog.

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