White House defends drone strikes

The White House offered one of its only public defenses of targeted drone strikes on Monday.

President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said using drones to kill terrorists before they carry out attacks on the United States and its allies was “legal,” “ethical,” “wise” and an “essential” tool.


“There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat,” said Brennan, speaking at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.

Brennan’s extensive remarks offered the first broad-based defense by the Obama administration of its use of remotely piloted aircraft, known as drones, to target and kill specific terrorists and their groups.

His speech follows on the heels of the White House’s first public legal defense last month by Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderBiden hosts potential VP pick Gretchen Whitmer on podcast The Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search MORE of the U.S. government’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad who are believed to be a terrorist threat.

As Obama has increasingly turned to drone strikes to avoid placing U.S. military forces in harm’s way, civil-liberties and human-rights groups have argued that the targeted killings carry with them a significant risk of civilian casualties.

But Brennan rejected this claim, saying that drone strikes actually help to eliminate the risk of innocent civilians being wounded or killed in attacks.

“They dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordinance that can cause injury and death far beyond its intended target,” the deputy national security adviser said.

“Compared against other options, a pilot operating this aircraft remotely — with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance — might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians.

“With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians.”

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda’s former leader, Osama bin Laden, Brennan acknowledged that the U.S. government must do a better job in fighting the “mistaken belief” in foreign countries that the American military unleashes drone strikes “casually.”

Obama is acutely aware that the United States, as the first country to ever regularly conduct drone strikes, is setting a precedent as to how other countries in the future will determine when a drone is appropriate and when it is not, Brennan said.

“We are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians,” he said.

The U.S. process for determining whether to carry out a drone strike begins when counterterrorism officials identify a member of al Qaeda or its affiliates as posing a threat to the United States and suggests the person’s name for capture or killing.

A “careful review” commences, in which the suspected terrorist must pose an “imminent threat of attack” and be a “definite military value.”  

Brennan said the United States does not carry out drone strikes as measures of retaliation against people who have harmed the United States or its interests. Rather, he said, the United States authorizes targeted killings in order to prevent future attacks on the United States.

“In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets,” he said. “We have the authority to target them with lethal force just as we targeted enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as German and Japanese commanders during World War II.”