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Biden secretly limits counterterrorism drone strikes away from war zones

Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration's national security adviser.
Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration's national security adviser.STEFANI REYNOLDS/NYT

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has quietly imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, and it has begun a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations, according to officials.

The military and the CIA must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant U.S. ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, they had been allowed to decide for themselves whether circumstances on the ground met certain conditions and an attack was justified.

Officials characterized the tighter controls as a stopgap while the Biden administration reviewed how targeting worked under former President Donald Trump and developed its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones, including how to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

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The Biden administration did not announce the new limits. But the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, issued the order Jan. 20, the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While the Biden administration still permits counterterrorism strikes outside active war zones, the additional review and bureaucratic hurdles it has imposed may explain a recent lull in such operations. The U.S. military’s Africa Command has carried out about half a dozen airstrikes this calendar year in Somalia targeting al-Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida — but all were before Jan. 20.

Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, acknowledged that Biden had issued “interim guidance” about the use of military force and related national security operations.

The review of legal and policy frameworks governing targeting is in preliminary stages. Officials are said to be gathering data, like official estimates of civilian casualties in both military and CIA strikes outside of battlefield zones during the Trump era. No decisions have been made about what the new rules will be, Horne said.

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The current rules generally require “near certainty” that no women or children are present in the strike zone, but the Trump team apparently permitted operators to use a standard of “reasonable certainty” that no civilian adult men were likely to be killed, officials said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.