whitehouse drone

Photo via angela n./Flickr (CC-BY-SA) Photo via Tony Alter/Flickr | Remix by Max Fleishman

The Obama administration has released its guidelines on drones and use of lethal force against terrorism suspects thanks to the ACLU's FOIA suit.

The Obama administration released an 18-page Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) document to the public on Sunday morning, offering up a set of guidelines on a topic that’s had huge implications for how America fights its covert wars—and how innocent civilians in foreign lands are often put at risk.

It’s a document directing America’s use of lethal force against suspected terrorist targets around the world, including the ever-increasing use of combat drones in the Middle East. For countless members of the grassroots and activist left, President Obama’s decision to continue and expand the U.S. drone program (which was launched under the Bush administration) ranks as the most controversial aspect of his legacy, and it’s fueled protests throughout his tenure.

The entire document has been uploaded for the public to see (it can be viewed here), albeit with some conspicuous redactions. And while it doesn’t come close to answering some of the biggest, most crucial questions about the program, it’s a rare moment of pulling back the curtain.

Notably, it does state that the capture of terrorism suspects is always preferable to killing them, although not for any stated morality reasons. According to the document, “capture operations offer the best opportunity for meaningful intelligence gain,” and therefore, “the United States prioritizes, as a matter of policy, the capture of terrorist suspects as a preferred option over lethal action.” The decision to kill rather than capture, according to the PPG, should only be made when American lives are in danger and “when capture of an individual is not feasible.”

It also asserts that “direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.” This is in keeping with the drone program’s ideal standards before, but it runs counter to the grim, often-reported reality. President Obama has publicly acknowledge that U.S. drone have killed more than 100 civilians, but the actual figure could be more than 800, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Simply put, the decision to keep American soldiers out of harm’s way by using lethal drones has forced hundreds of civilians in conflict regions to pay a devastating price.

It does contain one hard and fast prohibition, stating that no new detainees are to be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention center. President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo during his 2008 campaign, and has made efforts to do so. He signed an executive order to close the detention center on January 22nd, 2009, just one day after his inauguration. And yet, in the face of congressional gridlock and aggressive opposition from the GOP, it never happened, and likely rates as one of the biggest broken promises of Obama’s tenure.

Despite the fact that the U.S. drone program is hugely controversial to much of the American left, it's worth noting that the Democratic Party has not reflected this feeling in any of its major candidates or party leaders. In addition to President Obama's expansion of the program, both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her vanquished primary challenger Bernie Sanders supported its continuance.

Journalists and political observers everywhere have the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to thank for this document becoming public. The group filed a Freedom of Information Act suit to get the PPG unsealed.

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