White House Says Its Rules Limiting Drone Attacks To Avoid Civilians Don't Apply In Syria

from the rules?-fuck-the-rules dept

When the US finally set up some “rules” for its extrajudicial killing-via-drones (after years of no rules at all, which allowed the CIA to “acquire a taste for killing people with drones”), one of the “rules” was that drone bombs wouldn’t be used unless there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” As President Obama noted, this was “the highest standard we can set” to avoid civilian casualties via drones. This high standard upset some bloodthirsty hawks like Rep. Mike Rogers, who saw things like actually trying to prevent civilian casualties as unnecessary “red tape.” And, in fact, soon after the rules were in place, the Obama administration itself started realizing that it didn’t really like the restrictions it put on itself.

So it’s just going to ignore them. Last week, we wrote about how the administration has been redefining pretty much everything to justify the attacks on Syria, including what is meant by “civilian.” However, even with that new definition, they’ve run into some very obvious problems: namely that there’s increasing evidence that (despite repeated denials) the bombings did, in fact, kill civilians.

No problem, apparently, for the Obama administration, which has now decided that the very rules it set up in the past to avoid killing civilians with drones… no longer matter. Basically, it looks like the Obama administration just added a big fat asterisk to the “near-certainty” standard for civilian deaths, whereby those rules can be ignored… because the Obama administration says “this is different.”

At the same time, however, Hayden said that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a ?near certainty? there will be no civilian casualties ? “the highest standard we can meet,” he said at the time ? does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

The ?near certainty? standard was intended to apply ?only when we take direct action ?outside areas of active hostilities,? as we noted at the time,? Hayden said in an email. ?That description ? outside areas of active hostilities ? simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.?

It’s not much of a rule when you can exempt it based on… deciding to exempt it.

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Comments on “White House Says Its Rules Limiting Drone Attacks To Avoid Civilians Don't Apply In Syria”

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77 Comments
Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: No surprise

Sure, ignore those terrorists. That’s great advice. No, that’s why most of the voting public supports limited air strikes. And never has the “almost no civilian” been applied in a war context. The military has always had their standards and they are in line with international legal standards, which do allow for casualties.

Mike: .. and Obama did not redefined “civilian”. He reused the existing definition from the prior administration. You also seem to ignore the relationship between Al Queda and ISIL. By your view, any terrorist can get off simply by changing names and coming up with some story or how they are independent and didn’t like prior management. Fact is that drones have issues but have enabled many fewer casualties overall per top leader killed. [Yes, there are issues.]

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

This sounds to me like the White House is jealous that Israel is getting all the fun bombing and killing civilians and now the Obama Administration wants in on the fun with targeting, bombing and killing civilians.

I guess Obama wants to test this new action in Syria before testing it in large population centers like the United States. And Democrats call Republicans the bloodthirsty lot?

LOLS

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Anyone remember The Troubles? Big long extended problem Ireland had with terrorism? Probably not; it’s been over for more than a decade now, and people’s memories tend not to be that long, especially when politics are involved.

But one of the most interesting things about The Troubles is how it ended. Various times during the 1990s, the government brokered a cease-fire with the IRA, (the terrorist group behind most of it,) and every time, they quickly started blowing stuff up again. (That terrorists would behave this way should surprise exactly nobody.) But then in the early 2000s one thing happened, far from Ireland, that put an end to The Troubles almost overnight: a bunch of Muslim terrorists hijacked several airplanes in the eastern US and turned them into bombs.

I know what you’re thinking: what does 9/11 have to do with terrorism in Ireland? Then answer, surprisingly enough, is money. There are a whole lot of Irish-Americans in the eastern USA, and nationalist sentiment on their part had been responsible for the bulk of IRA funding. When terrorism very abruptly lost a lot of its glamour, that revenue stream dried up, and the IRA very quickly found themselves unable to continue operations.

But what does all that have to do with Syria? Well, it’s kind of an open secret that the bulk of Islamic terror groups’ funding also comes from the USA and our allies, in the form of oil money. So what’s the lesson we can learn from The Troubles?

If we really want to shut down Al Qaeda, ISIS, and whoever else, the best strategy would be to withdraw completely (seriously, over there it’s our enemies fighting our enemies, so why not just stand back and let them?) and take all that money we’re spending on military operations and invest it in energy research. Solar power is right near “the tipping point” of mainstream adoption, and electric vehicles are just a little further behind. Push them over the edge, share the technology freely, worldwide, make oil energy obsolete and petroleum worthless, and we cut Islamic terror off at the knees.

Of course, it’s not like we’re ever going to do something like that. It would make too much sense. But a guy can dream, no?

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

seriously, over there it’s our enemies fighting our enemies, so why not just stand back and let them?

I agree with everything you just said – except that line.

There are many innocent people being killed in that fight – especially the minority groups (Eastern Christians, Yazidis etc) – so “stand back and let them” is not a moral option.

Having said that it is also true that western interventions in that area have mostly been negative for these people – from the crusades to the overthrow of Saddam.

However the one thing we have never done is to actually listen to them we mostly ignore them unless their plight is journalistically photogenic – maybe we should start listening now.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Richard, I agree with your position. That other conclusion makes as much sense as to say to have all of our law enforcement go on early retirement so that people would see how bad things get. And more, do it right after a major battle starts or we are invaded. Or yes have our military disband and allow ISIL over here and then we will really hate terrorism and stop funding it. So instead of moderate rule of law, we can just have horrible restrictions and virtually no due process by modern standards. That will teach those terrorism funding Westerners!!!

Most people over there are not our enemies any more than most civilians are our enemies.

Anyway, when we went to Iraq, etc, from the US pov, we were defending. That made terrorism “hit home” and the defenders the good guys. Now, in going over there after we were begged to return and in limiting our participation, we are also part of the defending going on in most people’s eyes .. importantly from the Iraqi, etc, pov. And we’d be doing more, but we aren’t currently helping out in places where legally it would be problematic (because of Russia objections).

Obama is on track in saying that we should let them do most of the work, but to stand back and not bomb IS equipment is rather poor judgment. Civilian casualties in those cases are very small and the difference in helping (or lack) is very large to those fighting IS on the ground and ultimately to the people who must live there through no fault of their own except having been born there and not be very wealthy or willing to uproot and leave. [Most are rather poor and are living in very bad conditions because of displacement from their homes. They voted to live in quasi freedom in bad conditions rather than death or very little freedom. That was their vote and it happened before we put a single bomb in place.]

Yes, I agree, but I am not surprised the other comment gets attention in part because of the creeping bias against Obama on this site (understandable to have biases and for them to creep.. I have a reverse bias and tend to notice).

BTW, the White House has been clear that their civilian near 0 policy approach never applied to areas of hostilities, which the current situation clearly is. That was clear in material produced at the time, and the very person quoted in this article specifically reminds us of that as well. Not sure how that was missed.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The key point in the original comment was the one about funding.

Currently ISIS is funded by people with a broadly similar religious agenda (as was the case with the US Catholics and the IRA) what is needed is to shame these people into stopping their support. One would have thought that the activities of ISIS would have done that without intervention on our part. However that does not seem to have happened so we need to find ways to cut the funding at a point further back in the chain. This could be done by stopping buying oil (as suggested) but it could also be done by reducing the number of people who hold that religious agenda, and that can only be done by intellectual engagement. This would include politely pressing “friendly” islamic countries to end their prohibition on other religions and philosophical viewpoints.

In the meantime we might have to accept that basically secular local leaders like Assad – however nasty they might be – are a better option for the short term than those whose agenda includes exporting their nastiness throughout the world. Genuine democratic groups in the region are too small and weak to do anything at present. Arming them militarily will not be enough. We need to arm them intellectually so they can win over more hearts and minds.

Ironically dictators like Assad and Saddam, because they came from minority sects have had to be more pluralist and tolerant. You could be a Christian, a Jew a Buddhist on an Atheist in Saddam’s Iraq (and Assad’s Syria) – but not in some other places that we have never dreamt of invading…

Assad has never been a threat to anyone outside the middle east (and actually Saddam never really was either) but ISIS and their ilk most certainly are.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I think it’s primarily funded by selling oil and ransom money.

It had to capture some oilfields/people before that revenue stream was possible. It must have had some funding to do that and I would be surprised if that funding has gone away.

Also it would be a straightforward low risk military operation to recapture the oilfields. If the US believed that that would be enough to stop these people then I’m sure they would do it – or sponsor someone else to do it.

Whilst selling oil and ransom is currently a source of funding it can only be a secondary one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

> the best strategy would be to withdraw completely (seriously, over there it’s our enemies fighting our enemies, so why not just stand back and let them?)

The trick is to put self in other people’s shoes. While 9/11 may have helped quell some of the funding you spoke of, there are many possible outcomes and no simple rules. We, as a population remained free and relatively safe the entire time, for example. Certainly this would not be true for many over there as IS keeps gaining land and likely not true into the future based on what they advertize are their plans and beliefs.

Generally, the key is to maximize the odds people will see themselves in others shoes and have ways to vent and safely role-play without having to resort to weapons. Those odds are increased in a generally free land (with modern gaming/sports/etc and peaceful technology) vs a tyranny.

Anonymous Coward says:

This word-play is just following a long pattern of dictionary abuse (we won’t call it lying) by this president and his regime. For instance, Obama’s claim that he kept his campaign promise to remove all “combat forces” from Iraq, by simply renaming the tens of thousands of soldiers still occupying the country to “non-combat” forces, despite their role not changing in any way.

Just wait for the “active hostilities” classification to change again if Congress ever tries to exert its constitutional authority, such as perhaps invoking the War Powers Act (as Obama previously claimed that bombing Libya did not count as a war, so he neither needed congress’s permission nor was bound by the War Powers Act).

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Rules? Who needs rules?

Apparently, being able to redefine enemy combatant to “any male over 18” is not enough to ensure they can blow innocent people up. Now we’re just blatantly throwing the rules out the window.
If I don’t make any comments tomorrow, assume they have extended their rules (or lack thereof) to count anonymous commentators who don’t like the government much as enemy combatants.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: Re:

Do YOUR research. Someone can be a legal resident but not a citizen. Also, your definition of civilian includes enemy combatants, unless they’re in space. Furthermore, we have a reply button for you to use.
In conclusion, you’re either a really bad troll or a really good idiot.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Furthermore, we have a reply button for you to use.

I don’t think kenichi understands the concept of a threaded forum and/or doesn’t understand proper forum etiquette (ie: at the very least quoting something from the comment you are responding to), which is very weird since he claims to run “one of the most frequented anime and manga communities online”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Islam and the Koran advocate war, killing, rape and destruction of all those who refuse to convert. ISIS/ISIL are just carrying out (fully) the mandate and instructions as given to them through the Koran.

One just has to read the Koran and read any commentary on it by the imams and you will see that it is fully mandated to kill and torture anyone who doesn’t agree with and convert to Islam. It is also mandated that if a Moslem is in a minority position, then he should lie, cheat and do anything to bring down the prevailing government so that Islam can become the ascendant power.

There are enough English translations produced by various Islamic groups to allow you to study this for yourself, if you are unable to read Arabic.

This is the reality of it and those western leaders such as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron who say otherwise are lying through their teeth (literally).

I have peaceful Moslem friends – they would be the first to be lined up against the wall and shot, because they have the hide to have friends who are not Moslem, or they would be made to kill their friends.

The way of Islam and its full character are the reasons that the Kurds have walked away and rejected it wholesale.

The USA and UK governments (as well as the rest of the hanger-ons) require a reason to remove the freedoms from the people. Hence they are more than willing to support (in any surreptitious way) these extremist groups, it gives them a “bogey” man to direct the population to.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, by many different commentators, the chances of you dying or even being seriously injured by a “terrorist” attack is so very low. You are more likely to die from your friendly neighbourhood policeman than you are from a terrorist attack.

With that in mind, it would be more beneficial to direct these resources to fixing up disease, poverty, etc than where it is currently going. Stop building drones and the ancillary technology and focus on getting the unemployed back to working and the sick back to health.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The Bible talks about killing and murder as well. And presents a fundamental bias against women.

No, actually, it’s in the interpretation of the reader. That is why you can say you have peaceful Muslim friends. You specifically recognized you are referring to the interpretation of several imams. Yes, depending on interpretation Judaism and Christianity have serious problems. I mean, weren’t the Crusades supposedly supported by the top Christian leaders and in agreement with Christianity? Lots of innocent people died there.

I don’t like Islam, but you should not pretend that you are relying on interpretations that have alternative peaceful views (and many follow) in saying it is violent. However, I still think it is biased against women (clearly) from the bits I have read (even though a portion of that can be interpreted away if you attribute it to the context of the norms at the time).

Anonymous Coward says:

So you seriously believe it’s possible to fight a war and have no civilian deaths?

Or you object to death delivered by drones, which is generally more precisely targeted and causes fewer civilian casualties per, say 1,000 dead enemies, than any other way we have of delivering a bomb?

Or you think we should not go to war at all and your objection to Obama’s changes of the guidelines are a just a Trojan for that POV?

A secondary point is, you praise the whole measure, test, react approach when it is applied by online businesses, especially smart upstarts. Yet when Obama tweaks the U.S.’s policy on engaging the enemy because, say, the enemy has adapted by housing themselves amongst civilians, your only interpretation is any change in policy represents nothing but a moral abandonment of all principles, which were nothing more than cynical gestures to begin with.

And there’s nothing wrong with the way you interpret world events? You’re more honest than FoxNews? Really?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So you seriously believe it’s possible to fight a war and have no civilian deaths?

Or you object to death delivered by drones, which is generally more precisely targeted and causes fewer civilian casualties per, say 1,000 dead enemies, than any other way we have of delivering a bomb?

Or you think we should not go to war at all and your objection to Obama’s changes of the guidelines are a just a Trojan for that POV?

You’re very good at knocking down straw men.

A secondary point is, you praise the whole measure, test, react approach when it is applied by online businesses, especially smart upstarts

It’s a pretty different situation, don’t you think?

your only interpretation is any change in policy represents nothing but a moral abandonment of all principles

If they were really principles Obama believed in, he wouldn’t change them when circumstances change. That’s the nature of moral principles. Therefore we can see that this wasn’t a moral principle he was holding to, but a political expedient.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

What straw men? There is no straw men in that reasoning. It merely points out the fact that IF you believe that it’s necessary to kill the enemy in a war and IF you accept that we should fight this war and IF you agree that drones cause fewer casualties than any other method of killing the enemy THEN you have no basis for complaint.

But if you disagree with that that is a valid syllogism, please do tell.

And of course there are three IFs there. So if you disagree with any of them, do share that also.

I am think it’s pretty clear what I am saying is on point and true.

As far as Obama’s principles go on this exact topic, what you’re requiring of him is that he make the US LESS effective at holding down casualties while still killing the enemy than he could be. He should do this because earlier he said something different. And he promised.

You never know who’s on the other end of a conversation online, and I know we’re all at different stages of psychological and moral development and therefore capable of more or less sophisticated or reality based based reasoning. Black and white morality is a known characteristic of childhood and adolescent thinking and what that class of people have available to them.

If you don’t fall into one of those classes, I suggest you spend some quality time with some good works on moral reasoning. I am sure they’re plentiful on Amazon at a good price.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What straw men?

At no point did Techdirt take any of the positions you accuse them of, namely:

– it’s possible to fight a war and have no civilian deaths
– drones are an inferior bomb delivery system
– we should not go to war at all

Therefore, those are straw men. If I’m wrong, please quote the sections of this article that claim those things.

It merely points out the fact that IF you believe that it’s necessary to kill the enemy in a war and IF you accept that we should fight this war and IF you agree that drones cause fewer casualties than any other method of killing the enemy THEN you have no basis for complaint.

Perhaps you misunderstood the article. The complaint isn’t that there are some civilian casualties, or that drones are being used. The complaint is against the hypocrisy of declaring a standard for civilian casualties, and then abandoning it when it becomes inconvenient.

As far as Obama’s principles go on this exact topic, what you’re requiring of him is that he make the US LESS effective at holding down casualties while still killing the enemy than he could be.

What I’m asking of him is not realistic, but it is that he not announce decisions based on political convenience as though they are morally principled decisions. However, the fact that we know our politicians do this is not a reason not to point it out and criticize it.

Black and white morality is a known characteristic of childhood and adolescent thinking and what that class of people have available to them.

Nice ad hominem. Perhaps you can throw in an argument from authority for the logical fallacy hat trick! So what is your position on the matter, that it’s OK that the President goes back on earlier promises about moral issues, or that we shouldn’t make mention of it when he does? Or perhaps that you don’t consider civilian casualties a moral issue? I’m not really sure where you’re coming from on this other than that Techdirt is wrong.

Anonymous Coward says:

They are not straw men because they are common facts about the world which directly bear on whether we should or should not criticize the President for using drones.

The concept of a strawman does not presume to exclude anything whatsoever about the argument, spoken or unspoken, which is nevertheless both relevant and true. Specifically, I am not assigning to the editors of techdirt fictitious beliefs or injecting irrelevancies then attacking those. I am ASKING them if they believe that it is necessary to kill during war, and if this war is just and if we should take whatever actions we can to hold down civilian casualties. All relevant. The first one is obviously true. The second they’re free to disagree with and the third is their stated belief and anyway common morality impels us to agree.

As a consequence of these three assertions, we have a conclusion- we should use drones.

Assuming we can all see this, the hypocrisy of techdirt surfaces. They are criticizing Obama for , effectively holding down civilian casualties- something they claim to be for.

There is nothing much ad hominem in pointing out that insisting on adherence to a previously stated position which would now result in the US acting against the principle which motivated that position in the first place- to wit, minimizing civilian casualties- represents a kind of adolescent stuckness, because that is exactly what it represents.

What is the point of techdirts criticism? That adults should not be free to tweak policies to fit actual changing realities and thus better adhere to underlying principles? That any such move is automatically an example of hypocrisy?

Do you want to minimize casualties or not? Or is other people’s lives just such an abstraction that it can be used in a highly cynical, if perfectly and depressingly ordinary, game of “gotcha, politician !”.

There’s the good people at techdirt and their keyboard opinions about international terrorism and there’s the bad realities of a brutal world composed of very many people who could give fuck all about any kind of “principle” and would gladly kill as many innocent people as they could whatever the US does or doesn’t do wet to foreign policy.

And yes I am implying their points of view on this topic are completely and chronically disconnected from the real world.Is that ad hominem? No, that’s their actual track record.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I am ASKING them

You want me to believe you weren’t making rhetorical points with those questions? That they were nothing more than sincere and curious queries? I’m not buying it.


There is nothing much ad hominem in pointing out that insisting on adherence to a previously stated position which would now result in the US acting against the principle which motivated that position in the first place- to wit, minimizing civilian casualties- represents a kind of adolescent stuckness, because that is exactly what it represents.

You’re still missing the point. The White House didn’t explain that they’re doing this to minimize civilian casualties in the long term (which would have been a good explanation). They didn’t come out with a willingness to have an adult conversation about a difficult subject. They said “oh, this doesn’t count. This is an exception to the rule we stated earlier so don’t worry, we’re still really following the rule except when we’re not.” They want to be able to kill civilians without talking about why they feel they need to do it. That is the problem.

Is this making sense yet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You’re a bullshit artist. You’re deliberately “missing” the point. I consider that a form of lying. So this conversation is over. Trolls like you love to get the last word in, so have it and be sure to imply I am ending the discussion as a form of defeat.

I am happy for anyone to read our exchange as it stands.

Techdirt is free to disagree with any of those points 1 2 or 3 I made. Sure, I am bating them because none of them are something a reasonable person would disagree with. But my conclusion flows from those three premises. And that’s the point; a point repeatedly missed it. Wonder why.

Anonymous Coward says:

Seems a somewhat unfair comparison. The rules are for assassination, the situation is active combat. It’s foolish to expect the rules for targeted killings and the rules for overt military action to be the same. I’d be pretty damn pissed if they were actually, as either it means we’re way to killy as a country, or the people we send to fight our wars are way too restricted.

A more valid discussion is where the line should be drawn. What standard should be met to fire a drone based weapon in a combat zone? That would be far more meaningful.

Jose_X (profile) says:

White House was clear and honest (based on sources I found and quote above)

>> It’s not much of a rule when you can exempt it based on… deciding to exempt it.

What? In 2013, they explicitly did not include areas of active hostilities.

> The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”

Look at the title of this “fact sheet” posted by the white house last year:

“Fact Sheet: U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities”

And it specifically says as well: “In particular, lethal force will be used outside areas of active hostilities only when the following preconditions are met: “

Is there any evidence that they ever stated they would abide by those rules in a place like Syria under the current conditions?

Is it not clear that droning a person in a relatively peaceful environment is different then dealing with tanks and artillery in a war zone and other assets that may include people nearby?

We need a Press factchecker.

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