Inside America’s 18-page drone strike ‘playbook’

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A model of a military drone is seen in front of an U.S. flag as protesters rally against climate change, ahead of the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 24, 2016. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter - RTSJG0T

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HARI SREENIVASAN: I am joined from Washington, D.C. by Charlie Savage, a Washington correspondent for “The New York Times” and author of “Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.”

First the big impact. This is something we knew existed from 2013. What’s the difference now that it’s public?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: Well it confirms and provides new details about the process by which the Obama administration has developed for the government to make these very fraught, very contested decisions to kill people outside of war zones with a drone or a missile from a piloted aircraft as well.

What it shows is the administration, which came in and there was this sort of loosey-goosy process for deciding when to carry out these counterterrorism strikes, and the number of those strikes swelled under Obama’s first term. In his second term, he thought to regularize the process to bring more order to it. And in the process of bureaucratizing it, to normalize it, to entrench it as a normal part of how the United States government does business.

And so now that we can see the document itself, we can really see for ourselves how true that is. How regularized this process is. How many different layers of bureaucracy there are and participants in both legal and policy deliberations about these fraught decisions to kill someone in a place like these sort of ungoverned badlands where the United States is not engaged in a ordinary war, but also there’s no real government capable of arresting people who might pose a terrorist threat.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As the document points out, there’s almost different levels of committee meetings that have to happen to figure out who the person is, whether they can be captured in any other way. And the bigger question that a lot of people are always wondering about is what about collateral damage, or the casualties of innocent civilians nearby. What does this policy document lay out in that regard?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: What this policy did was it laid down a standard of near-certainty that there would be no civilian bystander deaths. Of course, since then there have been strikes. There’s been fewer strikes since May of 2013 when this came out, but they have continued. And reports of civilian casualty deaths has continued. So this near-certainty standard — it’s one thing to say that on paper, and it’s another thing to actually achieve that.

But part of the revelation of this, and it’s true it was kicked out through the pressure of Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. But I think it also has to be understood in the context of this late-twilight era Obama administration effort to be more transparent about these operations. Last month, the beginning of July, they put out the official understanding of their statistics, of how many strikes like this there had been, how many combatants, terrorists they thought they had killed as a result, and how many civilians they thought they had killed as a result. Those numbers are controversially low for the civilian category. But at least we see now wht the government thinks it has done. And Obama says going forward, his successor should put out numbers like that every year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Considering these are policy guidelines, what happens a few months from now with a new president in office?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, because this is not a statute, any future president can rescind, revoke, modify, even just ignore any kind of executive order, executive direction, policy directive — in this case policy guidance. In fact, the guidance itself contemplates that it’s the rules except when it’s not the rules. So it says the president can waive this whole process and set of standards if he or she wants to in some extraordinary circumstance. And it lists examples of things that might reach that standard. One might be if there is a fleeting opportunity to take out some high-level terrorism suspect, and there’s simply not time to go through this long set of meetings and reviews and inter-agency deliberations. If there’s a reason to do it, the president says we can do that anyway, but come to me for permission to waive these standards.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Charlie Savage joining us from Washington today of “The New York Times.” Author of the book, “Power Wars.” Thanks for joining us.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.

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