February 10th, 2013
11:27 AM ET

Gates: Drone program, while useful, would benefit from more oversight

By CNN's Kevin Liptak

The number of innocent victims of drone strikes remains "extremely small" and doesn't outweigh the benefits of using drones to take out al Qaeda operatives, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued Sunday.

But the former Pentagon chief said a better system of checks and balances could be constructive when the unmanned aerial devices are used to target Americans, aligning himself with lawmakers concerned about unfettered power in the hands of the president.

Gates served under George W. Bush during the beginnings of the drone program and later under President Barack Obama as the use of drones spiked. Recently lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have forcefully questioned the use and oversight of the lethal devices.

"I'm a big advocate of drones," Gates told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on "State of the Union," detailing how as CIA director under Bush, he pressed for ramping up the use of drones to monitor and target suspected terrorists.

While innocent people are killed by drones, "the numbers, I believe are extremely small," Gates said. "You do have the ability to limit that collateral damage more than with any other weapons system that you have."

The New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan, between 1,953 and 3,279 people have been killed by drones since 2004 - and that between 18% and 23% of them were not militants. The nonmilitant casualty rate was down to about 10% in 2012, the group says.

In Yemen, the group estimates, between 646 and 928 people have been killed in a combination of drone strikes and airstrikes, and 623 to 860 of those killed were militants. Only about 2% of those killed have been high-level targets, the group said.

Gates' remarks came as the U.S. Senate considers the nomination of John Brennan to become the next CIA director. As Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, Brennan was a vocal advocate for using drones to target America's enemies.

Some lawmakers, along with human rights organizations and civil libertarians, have questioned the oversight procedures dictating the use of drones, particularly when they're used to target American citizens overseas. That was the case when New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki - who officials said played an operational role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - was killed by a U.S. drone in 2011.

On Sunday, two senators decried the system currently used for deciding when to use drones to take out Americans overseas, saying it was a constitutional violation that demanded reform.

"It's very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said on CNN.

"There needs to be a trial for treason. The president, or a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone's death by flipping through flash cards," Paul continued.

"I don't know how often this will happen, but I agree with Rand Paul," said Angus King, the independent senator from Maine. He was elected in November and caucuses with the Democrats.

"The Fifth Amendment says that no person shall denied life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. These may be Americans that have committed treason by signing up with another country or another group against us, but it just makes me uncomfortable that the president, whoever it is, is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner, all rolled into one," he continued.

What's needed, King argued, is a check on the president's power that would retain the ability to order stealth surveillance and rapid action.

"Where there is time, go in, submit it to a third party, a court, in confidence, and get a judgment that there is sufficient evidence," King said. "Some say these people should have a whole trial. I don't believe that. But I think some independent check on the executive is healthy for our system."

That type of independent body should be considered, Gates said, if it gave Americans confidence the government was acting in good faith.

"Whether it's a panel of three judges or one judge or something that would give the American people confidence that there was, in fact, a compelling case to launch an attack against an American citizen - I think just as an independent confirmation or affirmation, if you will - is something worth giving serious consideration to," he said.

In hearings last week on Brennan's nomination to head the CIA, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she would review ideas for legislation "to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values," including a proposal to create a body that would review such strikes.

However, the intelligence panel has yet to begin drafting legislation, a Feinstein aide told CNN. For now, the panel is reading through proposals and suggestions by experts and commentators.

According to the aide, who spoke on condition of not being identified, writing a bill raised "a lot of questions to wrestle with." Consultations with the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees as well as the White House must occur before a final proposal can be developed, the aide added.

CNN's Pam Benson and Josh Levs contributed to this report.


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  5. Skorpio

    Empowering Muslim women to take control of Islamic societies and countries by paying bounties to them to eliminate terrorists, Islamic clerics and radicals is the first step for a long lasting peace. Perhaps these women could even vanish Islam which is the root of all evil. Remember that Bin Laden was captured because he was betrayed by his concubines.

    February 14, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  6. hftyijhukhftukhg


    February 11, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      CIA researchers have isolated the terrorist gene by doing experiments on all those Pakistani terrorist subjects in Gitmo. Money well spent on this research. They will do a vaccination campaign in Pakistan to eliminate terrorism. Once Pakistanis are cured from the terrorism disease, so much money can be saved by cutting things like the TSO budget.

      February 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  7. hftyijhukhftukhg


    February 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      President Obama is a the most responsible POTUS in the history. He is exhibiting utmost responsibility by reducing the terrorist population in Pakistan using drones to keep America safe.

      February 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  8. rory

    US is the country with no morale standard but with a strong principle i.e. friend of mine can sleep with my wife but not enemy of mine.

    February 11, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  9. him

    Drones good. Terrorists bad. Done.

    February 11, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Another stupid comment from another mindless Tea Partier above! Don't these people have anything on their minds besides saying "drones good-terrorists bad"? This kind of stupidity should be outlawed!

      February 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Reply
      • Jacob

        @him - Thank you for using short sentences to help even Islamists understand. The beauty of your message is in its simplicity. However, Islamic terrorists still do not get it, which is abundantly clear from Patrick's message.

        February 11, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  10. Portland tony

    Who in their right mind would believe this right-wing idiot Gates anyway? Anyone with half a brain should know that when a 500 lb. bomb explodes, it won't discriminate who it's shrapnel hits! There is absolutely no way to justify this brutality, none at all!

    February 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      Gates served in both right wing and left wing administrations. The fact that both conservatives and liberals are united in this noble cause of using drones does not bode well for Islamists.

      February 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  11. helenecha

    Lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, seemed to have forcefully questioned about the need of a military tactics, rather than the need of a national strategy, didn't they? Are they ok?

    February 10, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  12. Skorpio

    The cheapest way to eliminate terrorists is to pay BOUNTIES to Islamic women so they can get rid of Islamic clerics, terrorists and devout Muslims. Empowering Muslim women is the solution, if women are in control of Islamic societies and have the same absolute power as any emir, caliph or sultan, Muslim societies could have long lasting peace, freedom without discrimination. Don't forget that Osama Bin Laden was captured because he was betrayed by his wives.

    February 10, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  13. Joseph McCarthy

    Who exactly does this Robert Gates think he's fooling anyway? Over 70% of the people killed by those cursed drones are innocent civilians and that's all these is to it although the right-wing news media doesn't want us to know it! They all want to keep this obnoxious war politically correct and politically popular! This is getting ludicrous!

    February 10, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      Well said, Joseph. People need to wise up and see this obscene war for what it really is! A sinister plan plan to exploit Afghanistan's underground mineral resources just as the 2003 invasion of Iraq was done since Iraq contains 11% of the world's oil reserves!

      February 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
      • Ted

        Pakistan does not have anything worthwhile, it's a vast wasteland but most of the drone strikes target Pakistan. Drones kill terrorists. Pakistanis breed a lot of terrorists. That is why drones go there.

        February 10, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • Ted

      100% of those killed by drones in Pakistan were terrorists. No exceptions.

      February 10, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Reply
      • Carlson

        Gee Ted, do you honestly believe what you posted above? Gates lied, people died and not all were so-called "terrorists" either! You sound like a brainwashed Tea Partier if you believe that hogwash that Gates said!

        February 10, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
      • Ted

        @ Joseph McCarthy/Carlson - Of course. Drones have surgical precision. Drones do not kill civilians. Everyday, Pakistanis torture and kill hundreds of innocent civilians belonging to minorities in Pakistan. Then, Pakistanis dump the bodies of minorities they killed all by themselves at the site of the drone strike and blame the drones. Then Pakistanis try to fool the world that the drones killed civilians. Stop butchering your minorities.

        February 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
      • Portland tony

        Gee whiz Ted, were you there each and every time one of those cursed 500 lb. bombs fell on the so-called "terrorists"? I bet not, so who are you to say who gets killed and who doesn't? To say that those cursed drones don't kill civilians is nothing but a bald faced lie!

        February 11, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • Ted

        @ Portland tony – It's a fact that Pakistanis brutally kill their minorities. You can look it up. Pakistanis blame drones when the drones kill the terrorists they are breeding.
        Pakistanis are killing innocent civilians.
        Drones are killing Pakistani terrorists.
        Pakistanis are falsely blaming drones because they like to keep their terrorists.

        February 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Chris

      Who the heck is this Joseph McCarthy guy LOL? Oh lets not listen to Gates but lets believe that Joseph McCarthy some dude on a CNN comment board has the exact figure of civilian casualties caused by Drone strikes.

      February 11, 2013 at 9:29 am | Reply
  14. Chris

    To address the issue of innocent victims during drone attacks I invite folks to read the "The Law of Armed Conflict".
    If you feed, house, or in any way support a terrorist you are considered a "combatant". You are not an innocent victim!

    February 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      Absolutely true.

      February 10, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Reply

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