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White House Releases Policy on Drone Strikes

(CN) — In response to a court order in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, the Obama administration released a redacted version of a document outlining the federal government's policy on drone strikes.

The disclosure of the 18-page presidential policy guidance, or PPG, follows the May 2013 release of a "fact sheet" describing the document.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit last year seeking the full document, and U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon questioned in February whether the PPG could be withheld in its entirety.

The federal government said in a March 4 letter that it wouldn't fight to keep the PPG secret and would prepare a redacted version for court review.

The PPG and other documents were handed over to the ACLU on Friday night.

The redacted drone-strike "playbook" says that strikes may be used against terrorist targets when there is "near certainty that a lawful target is present," "near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed," and when the "target poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons."

President Barack Obama's approval is required when drone strikes target a U.S. citizen or when administrative officials disagree on whether a non-American target should be killed.

"If the principal of the nominating operating agency, after review by principals and deputies, continues to support the operational plan, the plan shall be presented to the president for decision, along with the views expressed by departments and agencies during the [National Security Council] process," the PPG states. "An appropriate [National Security Staff] official will communicate, in writing, the president's decision, including any terms or conditions placed on any approval to appropriate departments and agencies."

The document also says that "the president will adjudicate any disagreement among or between principals."

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement that the PPG should have been released three years ago, but the organization welcomes its disclosure now.

"The PPG provides crucial information about policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including hundreds of non-combatants, and about the bureaucracy that the Obama administration has constructed to oversee and implement those policies," Jaffer said. "The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of the powers that will soon be in the hands of another president."

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. "takes feasible precautions to minimize the risk of civilian casualties" when considering drone strikes.

"As the president has said, 'near certainty' is the 'highest standard we can set,'" Price said.

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