SitRep: Trump’s New Drone Rules; White House Loosening Counterterrorism Restraints; Wants to Gut U.N., State Funding
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
New rules. A slew of new reports detail how the Trump White House is looking at rolling back some of the checks and balances installed by the Obama administration that added a level of centralized control and a degree of transparency — some would say frustrating micromanagement — to the fight against terrorist organizations.
The administration has already loosened rules of engagement in parts of Yemen (As FP has noted), and is expected to soon do the same in areas of Somalia in order to give U.S. drones and Special Operations Forces a freer hand to hunt al Qaeda-linked groups.
Lowering the threshold. The administration is also wrapping up a review of how to grant the Pentagon the authority to launch counterterrorism strikes anywhere in the world while “lowering the threshold on acceptable civilian casualties and scaling back other constraints imposed by the Obama administration,” senior U.S. officials told the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung. The new rules would allow the Pentagon to take strikes without the authority of the White House, and scrap the “near certainty” rule of avoiding civilian casualties put in place by then-president Obama.
Spies like drones. And it’s not just the Pentagon that may see some rules go away. The CIA has already been given “new authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, U.S. officials said, changing the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the spy agency’s paramilitary role and reopening a turf war between the agency and the Pentagon.” That’s according to the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris, who write that the new authority “represents a significant departure from a cooperative approach that had become standard practice by the end of former President Barack Obama’s tenure: The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike.”
The not so old way. While the Obama administration imposed rules on the drone program, it still held on to some controversial — and very deadly — programs, including the “signature strike” effort that allowed strikes on groups of unidentified men thought to be terrorists. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary took a hard look at the issue in the final months of Obama’s tenure, finding that “the tactic had sparked fierce criticism from human rights groups and some lawmakers, who said it effectively gave the CIA carte blanche to bomb groups of men in countries ranging from Yemen to Pakistan simply because of where they lived and whether they showed any behavior commonly associated with militants.”
In 2013, Obama suggested he wanted to curb the program, but by 2016 the administration had “abandoned any pretense of reining in its use of signature strikes,” and was dispatching drones to strike at targets in Yemen and Somalia.
State of the state. These possible changes to Washington’s counterterrorism program come amid White House plans to cut the State Department budget by 37 percent — a proposal that prominent Republicans and Democrats in Congress vow to oppose.
State of the U.N. State Department staffers have been instructed to seek transformative cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for United Nations programs, FP’s Colum Lynch reports in an exclusive get. The plan signals “an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.”
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U.S. Army Europe is dethroning Burger King from its perch, ditching the fast food joint when troops deploy to bases near the Russian border in Poland. The Wall Street Journal reports that Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges is banning creature comforts like fast food from U.S. facilities in Poland in order to instill a wartime mindset among troops deployed there. Command Sgt. Maj. Muhlenbeck also says that having larger bases with greater accommodations risks creating divisions and resentment among troops deployed farther afield and in harsher conditions. In the meantime, Hodges told troops to “be ready for potatoes three meals a day for six months.”
Iran has built an underground weapons factory for Hezbollah in Lebanon so that the group can crank out missiles, rockets, and drones away from the reach of Israeli bombs. The sourcing on the story is a little hazy. Haaretz reports that a little known Kuwaiti newspaper with a reputation as a backchannel for the Israeli government messages to Lebanon and Syria first carried the claim. Nonetheless, the paper claims Iran built the underground factory after Israeli airstrikes on a Sudanese arms factory and convoys from Syria disrupted its supplies to Hezbollah.
The World Food Program is warning that famine is looming as a result of the war in Yemen and it’s looking for $460 million in order to prevent a crisis in the country. The AP reports that 7 million people in Yemen are facing food insecurity in the absence of outside help. Yemen has been upended by a war between a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries and the Houthi movement as well as a long-running conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Security researchers found a hard drive filled with sensitive documents, including the security clearance applications of two four star generals, connected to the Internet, according to a scoop from ZDNet. An anonymous lieutenant colonel left the drive exposed to the net, open for anyone who found it to peruse through gigabytes of email, security clearance applications, financial and personal information of service members, as well as a list showing the clearance levels of various senior officers. The information on the drive was not classified but experts still worry that it could be used for blackmail in the wrong hands. It’s still not clear how many or who else may have accessed the drive while it was connected to the Internet.
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