The letter also confirms for the first time that the United States killed four American citizens in drone strikes since President Obama took office in 2009.
But the completion of the Obama administration’s codification of how it conducts targeted killings and other counterterrorism policies — or the “playbook” as it has been called — has much further reaching implications for future U.S. policy. Begun as a project of then-White House Counterterrorism Director John Brennan, and accelerated due to fears of Obama not serving a second term, the playbook was meant to put into writing many of the ad hoc processes the administration had developed to facilitate the targeted killing of suspected terrorists.
A Washington Post article on Brennan from 2012 revealed that the playbook is meant to “cover the selection and approval of targets from the ‘disposition matrix,’ the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.” The “disposition matrix” is the benign-sounding name for the process used to approve targets for strikes. Far from being limited to drones, these strikes include the use of missiles fired from Naval warships and manned aircraft, and special operations forces.
According to Holder’s letter to Congressional leaders, the playbook has been completed, though it won’t be available to the public anytime soon:
This week the President approved and relevant congressional committees will be notified and briefed on a document that institutionalizes the Administration’s exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities; these standards and processes are already in place or are to be transitioned into place. While that document remains classified, it makes clear that a cornerstone of the Administration’s policy is one of the principles I noted in my speech at Northwester: that lethal force should not be used when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect.
Among the changes rumored to be put into place in the playbook is the shifting of authority for agencies to use drones in carrying out lethal strikes. Reports indicate that while the CIA will retain control of the drone program in Pakistan, other theaters will see drones placed under the sole purview of the Department of Defense.
Despite the increased attention they’ve received, the number of drone strikes has reportedly dropped in recent years. President Obama is due to deliver a speech on Thursday at the National Defense University laying out his vision for how counterterrorism goals will be pursued in the second term, including the use of drones and the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.