US Presidential Policy Guidance – redacted version

Note to the reader: To keep pace with the increasing terrorist threat (then) President Trump introduced the Principles, Standards, and Procedures for U.S. Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets in 2017. The Trump rules supersede the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) issued by former President Obama in 2013.

Although at first, the PPG was an undisclosed document, on court order the United States (US) government released a redacted version in August 2016. The PPG is a policy paper, outlining the operating procedures for when the US uses lethal and non-lethal force, including armed drones attacks, against terrorists outside the United States and “areas of active hostiIities”. The policy standards also set out that the US will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” and that direct action will be taken only if there is “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present and “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed or injured.

While the PPG may be seen as an effort to increase transparency, issues remain. Just to mention a few: the PPG does not elaborate on the legal standards for conducting targeted killings and it remains opaque what its general standards, including “near certainty” and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed” mean in practice. How evidence is evaluated that those standards have been met remains a question just as whether the PPG rules out signature strikes. But maybe most worrying of all is that it is completely obscure where the PPG actually applies; “areas of active hostilities” is an undefined, non-legal term leaving room for a broad interpretation of armed conflicts as defined in international law. Lastly it is worth mentioning that, despite the internal decision making process standards on targeting by government agencies that are included in this PPG, no court has any role in checking their work.

In addition to this PPG, the Obama administration issued Executive Order 13732 in July 2016 addressing civilian casualties in U.S. military operations that apply to areas inside and outside active hostilities.