The Biden administration has secretly imposed temporary limits on drone strikes and special operations raids targeting terrorists outside the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. The move is part of the administration’s national security review as President Biden considers altering the military and CIA’s use of force rules in place by the Trump administration.
This restriction was instituted on the day of President Biden’s inauguration by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and was first reported by the New York Times. This comes on the heels of U.S. senators introducing legislation to repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force and limit the president’s war powers without congressional approval.
Under the restriction, the military and CIA would need direct White House permission to attack terrorism suspects outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in places like Yemen and Somalia. During the Trump administration, officials within the military and CIA on the ground were free to make those decisions with the approval of the U.S. ambassador.
This move is eerily similar to a decision by the Obama administration in 2015 when then-President Obama announced that there were no longer combat troops on the ground and any “offensive” airstrikes or drone attacks had to be approved from the White House. Jessica Donati, the Afghanistan bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a book, Eagle Down, The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War that highlighted the dangers of micromanaging a war from 7,000 miles away.
“At the beginning of the administration, President Biden established new interim guidance concerning the United States’ use of military force and related national security operations,” National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman Emily Horne said.
Horne said that the purpose of the restrictions was to ensure that the president has “full visibility” on proposed, significant operations while the NSC staff leads a review of the legal and policy frameworks governing drone strikes. The review will also seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures, she said.
This move met with pushback from Republican representatives Mike Rogers of Alabama and Michael McCaul of Texas who criticized it as “yet another bureaucratic impediment that will give our enemies an advantage.” Rogers, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and McCaul, from the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “While our operators wait for approval from Washington, terrorists will escape to plot and fight against the United States and our allies for another day.”
Simultaneously, Tim Kaine, (D-VA) is seeking to limit the president’s war powers without consulting Congress. “Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the Executive Branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” he said.
The U.S. has been conducting joint special operations raids and airstrikes under several presidential administrations since the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration, in which Joe Biden was vice-president, greatly expanded the use of drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. Their purpose was to eliminate terrorists without risking the lives of American troops.
These airstrikes, including some by CIA personnel, sparked controversy over purported civilian casualties and a lack of transparency over the rules of engagement that governed them. However, the airstrikes and drone strikes conducted by the U.S. have been one of the most effective measures against terrorist forces since 9/11.
The Obama administration later imposed checks on the ability of the U.S. to conduct airstrikes such as a 2013 requirement that targets must be a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, and a 2016 policy about disclosing fatality and civilian casualty numbers to the public. The Trump administration later scrapped both policies. Avril Haines, who is now Biden’s director of national intelligence, had crafted the 2016 policy as the NSC’s then legal adviser.