The Biden administration disclosed Trump-era rules on Friday regulating the use of deadly force against terrorism suspects abroad, releasing them with several redacted lines to the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit after the Trump administration refused to make them public.
The rules, which President Joe Biden suspended on his first day in office while his administration began reviewing them, according to the Times, have come under criticism for making exceptions to standards about how and where “direct action” attacks were allowed outside war zones.
“We appreciate this release, which confirms our fear that President Trump stripped down even the minimal safeguards President Obama established in his rules for lethal strikes outside recognized conflicts,” Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a statement Saturday.
The rules, titled “Principles, Standards, and Procedures for U.S. Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets,” allow for US direct action against lawfully targeted terrorists “whose removal, either independently or as part of a broader campaign, is determined to be reasonably necessary to U.S. efforts to address the threat posed by the terrorist group.”
“The United States will continue to take extraordinary measures to ensure with near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed in the course of operations, using all reasonably available information and means of verification,” the rules state, before adding: “Variations to the provisions in this section may be made where necessary” in keeping with other laws and guidelines.
It’s those “variations” that caused concern.
“Over four administrations, the U.S. government’s unlawful lethal strikes program has exacted an appalling toll on Muslim, Brown, and Black civilians in multiple parts of the world,” Kaufman said in his statement. “Secretive and unaccountable use of lethal force is unacceptable in a rights-respecting democracy, and this program is a cornerstone of the ‘forever wars’ President Biden has pledged to end. He needs to do so.”
But Thomas P. Bossert, who helped develop the rules as a counterterrorism adviser to Trump, defended them to the Times, saying, “They were informed by American values, the principles of the laws of armed conflict, and tailored to combat the real and present threat to America and her allies.”
The ACLU filed the suit in December 2017 against the Departments of Defense, Justice and State after the Trump administration refused to make the rules public. Last fall, a federal judge ordered that the Trump administration had to confirm or deny the rules’ existence.
“We’ll refer you to the previous administration to speak to their policies,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in an email to CNN Saturday.
The Times reported in March that the Biden administration had begun reviewing the rules and was requiring the military and the CIA to get White House permission to launch counterterrorism attacks outside of war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.