April 30th, 2012
04:10 PM ET

Obama administration: Yes, we use drones

By Suzanne Kelly

The Obama administration publicly justified its use of unmanned drones to target suspected terrorists overseas for the first time Monday, with a top official saying the strikes are conducted "in full accordance with the law."

John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser said strikes are used when the option of capture is not feasible. Brennan discussed the strikes during a Monday address at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank.

"President Obama said here five years ago, if another nation cannot or will not take action, we will," Brennan said. "And it is an unfortunate fact that to save many innocent lives we are sometimes obliged to take lives - the lives of terrorists who seek to murder our fellow citizens."

The program utilizes unmanned aerial vehicles, often equipped with Hellfire missiles, to target al Qaeda operatives in remote locations overseas - often on the territory of U.S. allies such as Pakistan and Yemen. Brennan said the United States "respects national sovereignty and international law" and is guided by the laws of war in ordering those attacks.

But the attacks have drawn repeated condemnations from Pakistan, which says the strikes have killed numerous civilians. A drone strike hit a high school in the country's northwestern tribal region where intelligence officials said Islamic militants were hiding Sunday, bringing a fresh denunciation from Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

And domestic critics insist that the program isn't legal, and they remain concerned about the targeted killing of Americans like accused al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen in September.

"Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program - particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects. And the administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, could be killed without charge, trial, or judicial process of any kind."

And a woman stood up in the middle of Brennan's speech to protest the use of the drone strikes. She was carried out by security.

Brennan's remarks are the Obama administration's most candid and open confirmation of the program to date. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the killing of al-Awlaki in March, saying the United States had the right to use "technologically advanced weapons" against terrorists, and Brennan said the top lawyers for the Pentagon, State Department and CIA have laid out the legal basis for the attacks.

"When considering lethal force, we are of course mindful that there are important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories," he said. "We do not use force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints. The United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law."

Brennan said people are targeted if they are believed to pose a significant threat to the United States or its overseas interests. The targets are usually people holding high-ranking positions within al Qaeda, or who possess critical skills that help enable the terrorist organization to carry out attacks, and there is no feasible chance to capture them.

Arguments in favor of the method include the fact that no U.S. troops are put at risk, and that the precision targeting capabilities enable for the careful avoidance of civilian deaths. Brennan acknowledged that innocent civilians are killed sometimes, and the administration conducts a full review of the operation when that happens.

But he did not address the issue of backlash from al Qaeda or other organizations. In 2009, a CIA base in Afghanistan was targeted by a suicide bomber who posed as a double agent and killed seven CIA Officers along with a Jordanian intelligence official. A Taliban commander claimed that the attack was in retaliation for a drone strike.

And he said the program is now spreading beyond the United States, saying that other countries have the technology - casting light for the first time on the administration's concerns about the possibility that other countries using this technology against the United States.

"President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow," he said. "And not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians."

Brennan also revealed that there are disagreements over use of the program within the administration - but he added that the nation is at war.

"If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven't struggled with this, then they haven't spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism."

soundoff (365 Responses)
  1. more info

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    July 29, 2012 at 5:07 am | Reply
  2. Drone Away

    As far as targeting suspected American terrorists overseas, it seems legit they should be able to take them out, since capture is not an option. Does a cop have to wait for a criminal to shoot at them 1st when domestic crook points a gun at him? No. They are allowed to take deadly force if they believe they are in danger. That's fair if you ask me. Same thing here. There is a viable threat against US citizens. They have an obligation to take action to protect us. Same thing if there was a hostage situation. Are you going to wait and see what happens so they get a fair trial, or should you take the perp out to free the hostage?

    May 2, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
  3. Grey

    "Yes we use drones"... That's great, now how about using them on foreigners and not our own citizens.

    May 2, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
  4. man

    If we kill innocent people to save innocent people from being killed what is the point?

    May 2, 2012 at 2:07 am | Reply
  5. just say no

    Im tired of endless wars that only benefit war profiteers.

    Its like were living in the book 1984 by George Orwell. A perpetual war whos only goal is to keep the status quo.

    Im tired of the false left/ right paradigm. In truth there's no difference between Democrat and Republican. No matter whom is in office the same agenda gets rammed through, while the American people are left clueless.

    They no longer need to rig elections when its fixed before a vote is even cast. Vote Coke or Pepsi ladies and gentlemen, but at the end of the day its still Cola.

    We should have a another box to check on every ballot called NO CONFIDENCE, i wonder how many votes that would get?

    Personally i will WRITE IN Ron Paul on the ballot.

    May 2, 2012 at 2:07 am | Reply
  6. PiousPawn

    im almost 26 years old out of no where the war on terrorism began how did everything culminate to this point its all very confusing.....not many punctuations for a reason muhoohaha muhoohaha

    May 2, 2012 at 1:49 am | Reply
  7. mmi16

    Pakistan for all it's crocidile tears – realizes that without the drone program they would be politically overtaken by AlQeuada and the Taliban.

    May 2, 2012 at 1:02 am | Reply
  8. Johnny C.

    How do y'all feel about the thousands of drones Congress just approved to patrol *Americans* from *American* skies? Them drones ain't armed. Yet. Mwuhahahah!

    May 1, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  9. Marco Hsiao

    The low quality US state department has to know the current reality for international relation: (1) The US is dirtiest country on violating human right and violating morality in 21st century, because the US kills more than 100,000 innocent Iraqi Muslim.

    (2) The US treasury is approaching to another Italy or Spain (bankruptcy); terrible big military budget is hurting the US economy and job opportunities. The US has most evil drug dealers, so China should use missiles to kill these drug dealers in the US territory?

    (3) Pakistan's most important ally is China, the largest trading partner for Pakistan, India and Iran all are China, and now all are increasing fast. The US position in Pakistan is declining.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Reply
    • Uncle George

      Your use of the word "civilian" when referring to Iraqi Muslims reminds me of a quote from a famous person; perhaps someone you may have heard of, Osama Bin Laden? I'll refer to the Iraqi's using the same words he used about Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks: "There are NO civilians; EVERYONE is a valid target."

      May 2, 2012 at 2:08 am | Reply
  10. Marco Hsiao

    Killing civilian to prompt the US military budget (and the US military corporation profit) is immoral; no evidence they are al-Qaedai or al-Qaeda supporters, the US has not enough intelligence capability on it.

    After the drone bomber killing, supporters or half supporters of Taliban by Pakistani citizens has risen from 2 million to 11 million. The US troops in Afghanistan is becoming isolating. After the drone attacking, Pakistan is blocking the logistics supply.

    More and more Pakistani are angering against the US. Certainly after 2014, Afghanistan and Pakistan both will hate the US, because the US murders many innocent civilians.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  11. wavejump1100

    what could be a better deterrent than terrorists knowing wherever in the world they go, a hellfire missile can drop out of the sky right on their head.

    May 1, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  12. terry

    I saw on pbs a report that soldiers are remotely operating drones over here on American soil on their dayjobs on base, and coming home to suburbia having to keep that confidential to certain degrees. I don't disagree with drones but remotely operating drones from overseas is probably not the best way to fight in a war.

    May 1, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  13. TomGI

    I work for the company that makes the drones, He!!fire missiles too. I say we point a He!!fire at the mayor of kabul and hit the launch button.

    May 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  14. WDinDallas

    I like drones. Bush, Obama, whatever.....

    Our guys in Utah flying around Pakistan dropping bombs. Nice, safe, clean way to dispose of terrorists.

    May 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  15. HMMM.

    Peace is historically impossible without absolute military dominance. Drones are a great way to inject this dominance into a place where we cannot have ground troops.

    May 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • docparadox

      ooooooooh rah

      May 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  16. Yakobi

    DRONE FOR PRESIDENT!!!

    May 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • AcclaimedMan

      Yes, killing RATs (Religiously Aggressive Terrorists) is not a BAD thing, rather a NOBLE work !!!

      Let the DRONE rule the SKY OF TERRORISTS !!!

      May 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  17. byebye

    The government of Pakistan just angers me. Let us break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Let Pakistan deal with Afghanistan, China, India, and their other neighbors without us. A portion of those in Pakistan seem to be always angry with the US; I say, bye bye to Pakistan. Enjoy your neighbors.

    May 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • TomGI

      OK to keep the diplomatic relations, let's just cut off the billions in aid.

      May 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  18. Yuri

    Whatever it takes to make our nation and our pilots safe , JUST DOI IT.

    May 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  19. Facher83

    Declare War.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  20. mark

    People complain about this and that, but say "Please protect us!" then complain about the methods. I say to those people, you are weak and are a detriment to this country. You are the people that always complain either way, never satisfied. It is horrible when innocents are killed, and to make a statement that this is the reason why those people were kiiled on the US base is stupid. You're saying "Don't antagonize the bully so he won't pick on us more than he is doing" Again, go live in another country if you want to constantly complain.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • Saywhatyoumean

      I think I have the right to complain about the murder of innocent people in the name of "security". And I'm not telling you to move to another country just because we don't see eye to eye.

      May 1, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • Pudendal Cleft

      Ah, the old chickenhawk refrain; "if you don't like it, leave". A timeless classic.

      May 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
    • Wastrel

      There are no "innocents". If they do not like what their government or their religion is doing, they have a duty to alter or abolish it. I support the use of drones against any and all targets overseas that violate human rights, promote terrorism or threaten the existence of the US.

      May 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
      • S_man

        So you have no problem with China, Russia or even Pakistan flying drones over US airspace and killing us with missles?

        May 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
      • Yakobi

        S_man, if al Qaeda was hiding out in some "autonomous" area of the U.S. and China wanted to use drones to go after them, no, I wouldn't have a problem with that. I'd encourage it.

        May 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  21. Saywhatyoumean

    "Brennan acknowledged that innocent civilians are killed sometimes, and the administration conducts a full review of the operation when that happens. "

    Hope that review includes sending flowers to the family of the people you murder (oh I'm sorry, they're "unavoidable" casualties)

    May 1, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • SkiOne

      Did Al Qaeda send any flowers to the families of the 3300 people they murdered for no good reason on 9/11?

      May 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Tre

      ACTUALLY, the Obama administration did send its "regrets" and made payment to the family of a person killed when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone attack. Oh yes, that innocent bystander was a known bomb-maker but we apologized and make payment anyway.

      May 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
    • Serge Prévost

      Most replies are in favor of drones knowingly there is casualties, well I beg to differ. Can you begin to imagine people using drones against the USA in the USA that would not be well received yet doing it to others is welcome well America must have a different God than me. This is not a video game, there is collareral dammages but does non American dammage count to a lesser degree ? I don't know you read the bible then go to war...A drone on Assad yes...my god is with you on that one...

      May 1, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  22. Rajiv Shaw

    Send Chris Christie over there. He will starve them to death.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:41 am | Reply
    • ed

      We can drop him like a daisy cutter and tear up half their country.

      May 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  23. VET

    WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE WHEN A WAR IS DECLARED? "TO WIN IS THE BEST ANSWER. WHAT RULES COME INTO PLAY? AT THE VERY LEAST ARE THOSE THAT THE ENEMY WOULD USE AGAINST US. WHY DO YOU THINK WE
    AND ALLIES WON WW2 IN THE SHORTEST WAR IN HISTORY. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CLEAN WAR,IT IS
    HELL FOR ALL IN IT'S WAKE. TO WIN IS THE ONLY GOAL. YES WE ALL WILL HAVE TO LIVE WITH THE COST IN
    ALL LIVES LOST CITZENS GOOOD AND BAD,OUR TROOPS GOOD OR BAD AS WE ALL ARE. LIVE WITH LIFE AFTER
    ALL THE CARNAGE AS HISTORY HAS SHOWN–LIFE GOES ON,WE ALL SOME HOW SERVIVE IN OUR OWN WAY.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:37 am | Reply
  24. Donald Jones

    If it's ok for us then we shouldn't complain if other countries use drones in the US. And it shouldn't matter if they kill a few inocent us resident by chance.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Saywhatyoumean

      OMG your logic makes sick, but it makes total sense. Meh, who cares about a few dirty Arabs, right ? (sarcasm implied)

      May 1, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • Wastrel

      That makes good sense. And then what would we do to them?

      May 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  25. skpfrmdc

    How do you suppose we "won" America. Survival of the fittest.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
    • Paul

      We "won" by not wearing military uniforms, hiding and ambushing British troops. Kind of like what we call Insurgents today, only we call them cowards now. Oh, and make a deal with France to keep the British navy away from our shores.

      May 1, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
      • Scot B

        You are saying that the Continental Army did not wear uniforms? I say you are in error...
        The Army wore uniforms. The militias maybe not so much, but werent they a minority?

        May 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
      • Tragu

        @Scot B:

        ...or at least, the Continental Army tried to wear uniforms – but it was just hard to tell, given that there wasn't really enough money to buy such uniforms. =P

        May 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  26. VET

    YES IT IS TRUE THAT WE USE DRONES,EXCELLANT FOR THEIR PURPOSE IN PEST CONTROL AND ERADICATION.
    IT WAS NOTED IN THE NEWS THAT OUR GOV. WOULD LIKE TO USE THEM IN THE USA. HAVE WE BECOME PESTS.
    YES WE HAVE TO MANY OF THIS ADMINISTRATIONS POLICIES AND ENTITIES. I DO NOT TRUST THE USE HERE BY
    THE POWERS THAT BE. IF THEY WERE TO BE USED,IT SHOULD BE BY THOSE WE CAN TRUST,NOT THE POLITICAL
    ELEMENTS.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply
  27. NavyAirVet

    The President really liked to knock G.W. Bush for his treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, but has no remorse in his bombing and killing of suspected terrorists (And their wives and children) without a trial, as he used to demand before becoming President. Which is worse murdering people indiscriminately or a little water boarding? The latter seems tame to me in comparison.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
    • DMV

      Well said !!! and that tell us its about them not about innocent life .@navyairvet

      May 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi

      You mean a democrat is showing hypocrisy? Say it ain't so!

      May 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Tragu

      Actually, I think the main difference is that we (the US) attempt to CAPTURE OR KILL terrorists – if the terrorist is captured, then we have much more control over the situation, and can abide by both domestic and international law without risk to ourselves. If the terrorist is running around some godforsaken mountain in Pakistan, that kind of limits the options we have.

      In short: we have a responsibility to act humanely when at all possible.

      May 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  28. Ken

    Whoa...whoa...whoa...whoa...whoa...

    We use drones for attacks?

    Who didn't know this? Wow...old news, move along...

    May 1, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
    • NavyAirVet

      This is not old news and does demand the attention of all Americans; as these attacks are very secretive and under the direct control of the CIA. Murdering foreigners in other countries does seem heavy handed and is not without collateral damage to innocents.

      May 1, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
      • Tre

        We also kill American citizen's by drone attack – remember Anwar al-Awlaki? A terrible person yes, but an American citizen. We also apologized to the family of the bomb-maker that was killed along with al-Awlaki and also made payment to his family!

        May 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  29. Duane Allen

    Thank you, President Obama, for protecting our nation and making America a safer place to live and raise our children.

    May 1, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • Brandzdon

      If that was sarcasm, it was funny. If you were serious, look around. Five years down the road, drones will be used on American soil on peaceful demonstrators.

      May 1, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
      • skpfrmdc

        Kent State University, 1968. We don't need drones to kill civilians. Thee are perfectly capable of doing that themselves (Stand your Ground).

        May 1, 2012 at 11:33 am |
      • Yakobi

        But only if they're still occupying Wall St.

        May 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  30. Brandzdon

    "laws of war"? Did Senate approve this war?

    May 1, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
    • roflsnout

      no but they approved your mom

      OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH WHAT NOW

      May 2, 2012 at 1:30 am | Reply
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