November 29th, 2012
01:23 AM ET

Key U.S. official defends use of drones

Kevin Bohn

In a rare move, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon on Wednesday publicly defended the United States' use of armed drones in the counter-terrorism fight, calling it a "targeted effort."

Donilon addressed their controversial deployment after a student asked him about their use while he was speaking at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

He said they are only used against groups and individuals who pose the most serious threats against the United States.

"We are using all of the tools," available to fight al Qaeda and one of those is the drones, Donilon said.

Donilon did not use the word drones in his answer. He called them UAVs– unarmed aerial vehicles - and said the U.S. is in "full compliance" with domestic and international law.

"We have the right to take action," he said, adding it is "done prudently."

Drones have become a key part of the counter-terrorism arsenal operating over Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The U.S. official said the possibility of collateral damage is taken into account, but called them a "wise tool" because a broader military attack would result in higher casualties.

He said the Obama administration has tried when it can to discuss in public the principles behind the use of drones - their legal justification, when an American can be targeted - but the sensitive nature of the missions limits what officials can say.

The Pakistani student who asked Donilon about drones also addressed the U.S. relationship with his home country.

Donilon admitted "it has had its challenges" and "we have had disagreements," but called Pakistan a "critical partner" in the counter-terrorism effort, pointing out it has lost thousands of its own forces.

He said the aftermath of the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden was a "difficult moment" in the alliance. Pakistani officials were especially upset they were kept in the dark.

Donilon said U.S. officials knew their Pakistani counterparts would not be happy.

"We took that into account," he said, telling the audience that the U.S. knew there would be sovereignty questions, but the sensitivity of the mission required secrecy.

"We had to make that kind of judgment," he said.

He said the relationship today is better because there is no crisis.

On another key foreign policy issue facing the second term, the national security adviser also defended the administration's approach on Iran, saying the effort to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons was and remains a "top priority" in the president's second term.

Donilon said "tremendous pressure" has been applied on Iran's economy and that inflation and unemployment are being felt because of the sanctions put on the country.

He admitted one problem the west faces is making sure its message gets to the right people in the Iranian leadership "to try to force the point" that Iran must sit down and discuss its program. He said discussion is the only way to solve the problem.

"We will continue (the) pressure campaign," including politically isolating the country, Donilon said.

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soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Martin

    Allah fears drones.

    December 2, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
  2. ShahNawaz Ansari

    Pakistan is a two face serpent. A source of financing and inspiration for all terrorists in the world the likes of which have attack thousand of innocents everyday across the world. A place where these extremists seek refuge after attacking neighboring countries. Pakistan is a Smithsonian specimen. Like humpty dumpty even USA, NATO and the entire free world are having a tough time holding it together. Living in the shadows of China, defined by India, haunted by Bangladesh and Balochistan and punctuated by zillion Terror Organizations, Pakistan is struggling to find a meaning for its existence and a place in the new world order. How can it stand up? Certainly not on its feet .....perhaps on its knees to seek redemption for double crossing USA in Afghanistan.

    December 1, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  3. ShahNawaz Ansari

    The bottom line is that the only way to have peace in the region, eliminate terrorism and lessen regional tension is split Pakistan into pieces. Give half to Afghanistan to govern and give other half back to India. It has become too irrelevant to govern or create any value to the civilized world and even for its own population. We have invested a lot of resources in PAKISTAN over the past 6 decades and given a lot of aid to prop it up. There has been no return on this investment. Instead Pakistan has squandered all the resources in raising and nurturing terror groups, building nuclear weapons while poverty and religious madness remains rampant in the country. We need to revisit our relationship with Pakistan. American taxpayers will not tolerate this anymore. We need to take care of our own populace going forward. We cannot be accepting terrorism and extremism from Pakistan and giving financial or technical handouts.
    The thesis is that irrelevant nation need to be taken care of and that will generate tremendous economic demand for western nations in the countries where its parts will be joined and the world will have no worries to manage it.

    December 1, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  4. Carl

    Pakistanis shoot little girls who want to go to school, and train little boys to be suicide bombers. I am afraid that the only way to deal with Pakistanis is to use drones.

    November 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
  5. StanCalif

    Yes, our drones have made a huge difference. However, more countries are now building drones. Soon, the "terrorists" will have them. Car bombs and suicide bombers will soon be unnecessary. The "terrorists" we all talk about are not stupid people and are well financed. Terrorist drones will be coming soon! What defense is there? None! The Patriot missles, Israel's Iron Dome and the now useless Cruise Missle can't defend against drones!
    Joy stick war is coming, very soon!

    November 30, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply
    • Jon

      Terrorists can have the pathetic Kassam rockets at best - they do not have the technology, skills or mindset to develop drones.

      November 30, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
  6. Flores

    Pakistanis train their own little kids as suicide bombers. Just yesterday a bunch of little kids and their Islamic handler were caught. Pakistanis have no problem blowing up their own kids. Then why do the Pakistanis complain about drones?

    November 30, 2012 at 7:21 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      The Pakistanis, and their terrorists friends, will soon have drones of their own! Then what?

      November 30, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
      • Jon

        Drones can be shot very easily - Israel did that a couple of weeks ago. Drones are not a threat to any civilized country - they have the technology to easily take any unfriendly drones out in a very short response time.

        November 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  7. iamroot88

    UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, not Unarmed Aerial Vehicle

    November 30, 2012 at 2:49 am | Reply
  8. massoud

    Michael Chertoff dual Israeli-American citizen while head of Homeland Security went on tv talk shows and pushed for Rapiscan Radiation Machines to be used by the TSA at airports all the while his own security firm was pushing for contracts from his security firm to sell the dangerous radioactive machines to US airports that the TSA implemented in US airports.

    November 30, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  9. joe prov

    That is not true. The use of drones on civilians (those we accuse of plotting against us) is a war crime and crime against humanity. You cannot kill a group of people because you THINK they might be bad guys… Or because they are in the same room as a known bad guy. Just because a person of interest resides outside of US jurisdiction doesn’t make it ok to assassinate them

    November 29, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  10. massoud

    The U.S. Government plans to have 30,000 Drones flying the sky's in the U.S. by 2020. Big Brother will be Watching You, while no one will be watching the "watchers".

    November 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Ethan

      Drone program has worked exceptionally well with minimal casualties. There is nothing wrong with the drone program - If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Stay the course. Keep pounding those Pakistani terrorist rascals.

      November 29, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
      • massoud

        20 % of the deaths by drones in Pakistan have been civilians and many children have been killed as a result of the drones strikes in Pakistan

        November 30, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  11. Scott B

    Appreciate the semi-honesty, but many of us don't think these judgments have been correct.

    November 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  12. Silverado

    Drone program is a highly successful joint development project between the US and Pakistan. The US develops the drone technology and Pakistan develops the terrorists target and allows the US to practice. You need both innovation and practice to achieve perfection.

    November 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • massoud

      They've been successful in Pakistan ? When Pakistan is no longer a safe haven for the Taliban to retreat to each winter and return in the spring for fighting season, than and only then will they be successful in Pakistan.

      November 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  13. rex edie

    how many shares of stock does he own in the company that makes the drones ???? its "BS"

    November 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  14. knaiem

    What if Country X wants to retaliate and considers the white house to be an appropriate target?

    November 29, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
    • trustscience

      i hear you. fact is, it's out of our control. completely.
      we're in for the ride, only, nothing more than helpless observers. ...sucks, but it's true

      November 29, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • robtemery

      Just think Politicians will need air support just to campaign in the open especially when the Republicans and Democrats acquire their own squadrons

      November 29, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
      • robtemery

        Drones are already deployed along the border. Many drugs are crossed by Illegal Immigrants as payment. You won't find the Cartels bosses out there.

        November 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Silverado

      Drones are relatively slow moving vehicles - drones are not supersonic jets. Israel shot down the intruder drone right away as soon as it violated Israel's airspace. So, it is not a problem for our security at all. On the other hand, terrorists live in the kind of countries which are in still in stone age: like Pakistan. They harbor terrorists - so, we use drones against them - and they are either unwilling or incapable of stopping our drones.

      November 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  15. trustscience

    drones along the u.s./mexican border would be wonderful to stop the cartels. only problem gov't "officials" from both sides must to be profiting wildly. lying sacks of crap, all of 'em.

    November 29, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply
    • Silverado

      Mexico did not harbor Osama Bin Laden. Drones should be deployed at the home of the terrorist: Pakistan. That's where the terrorists live and that is where the drones should be.

      November 29, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
      • trustscience

        sounds good, Silverado. i think we can rest assured, drones will be everywhere. soon.

        November 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • trustscience

      Robtemery- ha:), yes!!
      and #2- yes, thank you. i believe you are precisely correct.

      November 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  16. reborg2000

    This is the problem with the press. They only get about 66% of the information correct. And the people that don't know any better take their word for it and it starts problems.
    UAV= "unmanned aerial vehicles"

    November 29, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
  17. Calvin Hobbes

    The drone strikes are indeed appalling but the real problem is the continued (mis)use of the military industrial (including the CIA) by Washington for geo-political gains which has been going on since the end of World War II.

    US state sponsored terrorism has been responsible for more deaths and human suffering than Al-Qaeda, Pakistan and Iran combined (starting with Cuba, Central and South America and has shifted focus to The Middle-East).

    "The War on Terror" is a very useful tool for politicians in the US. (And no, I do not believe that the Bush administration was involved in 9/11.)

    Fear is a very potent weapon to keep people in line and also to promote extreme free market policies and de-regulation as proposed by economist Milton Friedman (As the US tried in various countries in South America e.g. Chile during the 1970's.)

    In 2004 The Washington Post reported on the findings from Cornell University that found when The Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorist threat, the POTUS's approval rating went up by an average 3.5% the following week.

    The REAL problem is that:

    1. Many of the US electorate are so blind that they buy into it.

    2. The expression of military might as a expression of US global (and moral) supremacy has become so much a part of the collective consciousness of so many of the US electorate.
    3. The military-industrial complex has become so Leviathan in size and influence that it is now beyond the scope of ANY President to reverse it.

    November 29, 2012 at 7:28 am | Reply
    • robtemery

      The real problem is there is much occurring the public doesn't know about and many don't care

      November 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  18. MakoDC

    UAV= "unmanned aerial vehicles" not "unarmed"; the latter is a bit counterintuitive anyways, especially framed against your story.

    November 29, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
  19. Silverado

    Drones are awesome. Only terrorists don't like drones.

    November 29, 2012 at 6:33 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Drones are "dirt cheap" compaired to building an invasion force! Drones are now being built and sold all over the world. Soon the "terrorists" will have their own drones. Then what? Car bombs will become a thing of the past, quicker than you think!

      November 29, 2012 at 7:00 am | Reply
      • StanCalif

        Anyone working on an "anti-drone drone"? Joystick war is here! Drones cannot be brought down by Patriot missles nor Israel's "Iron Dome" system.
        Remember the wonderful weapon "cruise missle"? Virtually useless today!
        Don't forget, our US Army is busy working on a new version of the Abrams tank. Useless!!!

        November 29, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • massoud

      what about innocent civilians, or are they just "collateral damage".

      November 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • atan44

      Only terrorists hate drones? Then I must be a terrorist. As long as they kill hundreds of unarmed civilians, mainly women and children, for each possible (but never confirmed) terrorist, I'll hate them. I think joystick war is sickening.

      November 30, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
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    November 29, 2012 at 2:41 am | Reply

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