Trump Is Considering Expanding Killing Powers Abroad. The Consequences for Civilians Will Be Disastrous.

When the Obama administration put in place guidelines meant to restrain lethal drone and other killings abroad, we were concerned that they set too low a bar, and that even that low bar could easily be overturned.

Now, our worst fears are coming to a head. According to a recent New York Times report, the Trump administration is considering weakening or withdrawing those rules, which, while flawed, are intended to limit civilian deaths and injuries. Without them, the U.S. will further unmoor itself from domestic and international law that safeguards against extrajudicial killing, and many more innocent people will die. The Trump administration has also reportedly lifted limits on the CIA carrying out drone strikes, meaning that the CIA could return to its role as a paramilitary organization killing people largely in secret.

The Obama-era policies are contained in the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, a redacted version of which was released in 2016 in response to an ACLU lawsuit. That document articulates executive branch processes for approving lethal strikes outside of recognized war zones. These kinds of strikes dramatically increased under the Obama administration, and the president and his advisors saw the PPG as an attempt to constrain them — even as it institutionalized them.

The PPG places restraints on intended strikes outside “areas of active hostilities” (a term that first appears in the guidance, is not defined, and has no legal foundation). Still, one of the key requirements for approving such a strike under the PPG is that there be “near certainty” that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.

Now, according to news reports, President Trump has granted a military request that three areas of Yemeni provinces be, at least temporarily, declared “areas of active hostilities.” This could explain why a January raid in Yemen killed up to 23 civilians — including, according to a detailed Intercept report, 10 children under the age of 13 and six women. That designation would have effectively given the military the green light to proceed without the “near certainty” that civilians wouldn’t be harmed — even in areas where the United States isn’t actually engaged in hostilities.

To ensure the public better understands the legal basis for the Yemen raid, the decision-making process leading to it, and its outcome, the ACLU today filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records pertaining to the raid and the designation of parts of Yemen as “areas of active hostilities.” We have also requested information about the numbers and identities of civilians killed — including both assessments made in advance of the raid and in its aftermath.

The Times report suggests that the Trump administration is considering applying the same “area of active hostilities” designation to Somalia, which would endanger civilians there as well. Even more worryingly, the report suggests the president is considering rescinding the PPG altogether, which could effectively — and unlawfully — turn other parts of the world into the president’s claimed battlefield.

The ACLU expressed many concerns when the redacted PPG was first released after a protracted litigation struggle. It normalized the practice of killings outside theaters of war, with no judicial oversight. It extended more permissive standards for killing — those applicable to actual war zones — to non-war contexts, even though far more stringent human rights standards apply in those areas. It distorted domestic and international laws limiting the use of lethal force.

Critically, the PPG also imposed constraints only as a matter of policy, not of law. As a result, the Trump administration can do away with those safeguards with the stroke of a pen, exposing many more civilians to America’s lethal might, without even the insufficient standards and layers of oversight articulated in the PPG.

Developments in Yemen could offer a preview of what we can expect on a regular basis if the PPG is rescinded, or if the Trump administration chooses to extend the “area of active hostilities” designation elsewhere. President Trump has already approved some three dozen drone strikes, mostly in Yemen, since taking office — averaging almost one per day and far outpacing the strikes ordered by President Obama, especially late in his second term. There is little public accounting of who has been killed, on what basis, and with what consequences.

During the Obama administration, we repeatedly argued that there are some powers people should never concede even to the president, and that extraordinary powers consolidated in one office inevitably will be abused. That is true no matter who the president is. We gave those warnings at a time when a Trump presidency was inconceivable to many. Now, it’s a fact.

If the Trump administration’s patterns expand, the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global legal framework that protects life and preserves international peace and security — and the lives of many more people who could now die.

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Anonymous

Sissy liberals!!!!

juliet delaney

You are disgusting. Routing on the killing of innocent people. there's a special place in hell for you and Trump

John G

What's it like being a coward? Won't even leave a name? If you had a brain in your head and thought beyond liking war video games, this makes us no better than those disgusting pigs that are terrorizing the US and Europe be-heading and blowing people up because they also don't care if they kill innocent men, women and children - either apparently do you or our delusional commander in chief. What if it was your innocent wife, daughter or son killed by government sanctioned murder? You're a meat head...

Anonymous

I can't wait till you see what's going to happen to HIM for DOing all this stuff. He isn't going to live out his presidency and that's not a threat. He's going to last about 2 years and then Mike Pence will finish out the term.
And I'll never be Liberal, not after being assaulted by so many of them just because I want the actual people who killed my daughter's dad on September 11 or HELPED kill him by paying for it, to be accountable for their goddam crime.
But Donald Trump will never be a human being after tonight and what he's doing with his budget.
You think there's a Supreme Being of the Universe that's just going to let that shit go by?
I don't think so. I had a near-death experience and was judged for WAY less than letting poor people starve and freeze and die without health care.

Anonymous

If American agencies can illegally assassinate on foreign soil, not on a battlefield which is a war crime - couldn't other nations do the same to Americans on U.S. soil?

juliet delaney

Yes and these other countries will be suing us in the future

Anonymous

Are you attempting to justify terrorism?

Leigh

The legality is irrelevant. If the United States kills civilians in other nations, they will retaliate.

juliet delaney

This is bullshit. Trump constantly dogged Obama is drone strikes and now he is giving order's to kill who ever maybe in or out of the strike zone and who cares if there are innocent civilians.

Anonymous

You're probably getting a very distorted picture form a very anti-American source - the ACLU.

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