Obama’s Drone-Strike Rules to Be Reviewed

President Barack Obama’s embrace of drones as a core component of his counterterrorism strategy has long put him at odds with his Democratic supporters.

Now new concerns have been raised in the wake of revelations that restrictions he imposed two years ago on the program failed to prevent the deaths of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, killed by a drone strike in January.

The president’s challenge lies in his statement Thursday, when he announced the news of the hostages’ deaths, that the operation had been carried out in a manner “fully consistent” with current guidelines.


“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes—sometimes deadly mistakes—can occur,” Mr. Obama said, while citing a willingness “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”


The administration intends to review its rules and likely will focus on how it didn’t know the hostages were at the suspected al Qaeda compound. “Could we have done something differently? Is there another check we could have made?” one U.S. official asked. “The answer would probably be ‘Yes.’ ”


The administration’s review could revive discussion about Mr. Obama’s calls for control over the drone program to shift from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon. But Pentagon officials said there appeared to be no indication the outcome would have been different if the strike had been carried out by the military rather than the CIA. Both rely on similar intelligence.


At the same time, it seems unlikely the review would lead to any significant changes to the drone program, which continues to receive strong bipartisan support in Washington from politicians and counterterrorism officials who see it as essential to battling militants in remote parts of the world.

If there are changes, some officials said, they are likely to impose modest restrictions on the kind of strike that killed the two hostages.


Mr. Obama came into office as a critic of the drone program, started by former President George W. Bush. But he expanded it during his first term by increasing the number of strikes in Pakistan and creating parallel CIA and Pentagon drone campaigns in Yemen.


In May 2013, Mr. Obama outlined in a speech at National Defense Universitynew protocols for drone strikes—one for terrorism suspects on secret “kill lists” and one for suspected terrorists in “signature strikes.” The former requires presidential signoff. The operation that killed the two hostages was a “signature strike” that didn’t require Mr. Obama’s approval.


White House press secretary Josh Earnest said there are “legitimate questions about whether additional changes need to be made to those protocols.” In addition to the White House review, Mr. Obama ordered one by the U.S. inspector general.


The White House also is facing questions about whether the administration missed an opportunity to rescue the hostages. U.S. officials said there was never enough intelligence to attempt a rescue operation.


That Mr. Obama has overseen the first known instance of the CIA killing hostages will leave a blemish on a counterterrorism legacy he has sought to reshape in his second term. The White House defended the program on Thursday as having kept Americans safe, while Mr. Obama, visibly stricken, said, “I profoundly regret what happened.”


The issue has for years put Mr. Obama at odds with Democrats who elected him, in part, because of his promise to challenge post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, called in a written statement Thursday for more transparency in the drone program. The hostage deaths reveal a “significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used,” Mr. Jaffer said.


While Republicans largely defended the drone program, some Democrats , including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested scrutinizing how intelligence is used in picking targets.


Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said strikes whose targets have not been precisely identified have “always been the greater source of concern and scrutiny. He called the intelligence “tragically incomplete” and said he has asked the CIA to give lawmakers a more detailed briefing.


Loch Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia who previously served as a congressional aide with a focus on intelligence, said “signature” drone strikes are likely to come under intense scrutiny. “I think we’re going to see changes here,” Mr. Johnson said.

Source: Wall Street Journal