The Biden administration released a document that outlines some Trump-era changes to US counterterrorism operations. The Trump administration loosened the rules of engagement for drone strikes and raids outside of what is considered active US war zones.
While it is partially redacted, the document shows commanders could carry out “direct action” without the approval of the White House as long as the action was within the “operating principles,” which say there should be “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed in the course of operations.”
However, the document leaves room for exceptions to these rules. The document reads: “Variations to the provisions in this section may be made where necessary in accordance with the proposal process.” Other exceptions could be outlined in the redacted portions.
Unnamed US officials told The New York Times that the Trump administration often made an exception when it came to “near certainty” that no civilians would be harmed. The administration kept the rule for women and children but downgraded it to “reasonable certainty” when it came to adult men.
Either way, there’s no way to be certain civilians would not be harmed in a drone strike. In Somalia, where Trump significantly escalated the drone war, US Africa Command would always claim no civilians were harmed in strikes. But whenever journalists or human rights groups made it to the scene, they would almost always report civilian casualties.
The Biden administration is reviewing these policies and currently has interim rules that require White House approval for drone strikes outside of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.