President Obama offered a vigorous defense of the use of unmanned aircraft to kill Al Qaeda operatives and other militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and in the process, officially acknowledged the highly classified CIA drone program which, until now, U.S. officials have refused to discuss in public.
"I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones," Obama said on Monday, adding that they have been used for "very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates."
Obama went on to say that "obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA," the acronym for Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, and have been used for "going after Al Qaeda suspects who are in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan."
"This thing is kept on a very tight leash," Obama said. The U.S. does not use drones "willy nilly" but in a way that avoids more intrusive military actions, he said.
Obama made the comments in a "virtual interview" that was conducted via Google+ and YouTube, with questions coming from hundreds of thousands that were submitted online. Five individuals were selected to participate in the online "hangout" with the president.
Although the fact that the CIA uses armed Predator drones to strike against Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan is well-known in both countries, U.S. officials have declined to discuss the program in public -– in part out of fears that doing so would further inflame relations with Pakistan.
Administration officials have generally refused to acknowledge the strikes, except anonymously, or they have referred to them obliquely as "counter-terrorism operations."
U.S. officials have begun to edge away from that stance in recent months, with Pentagon chief Leon Panetta last month referring to the CIA's use of drones while he was the director. But he didn't mention locations where the attacks have occurred, nor did he explicitly mention that the drones are not just used for surveillance but also to kill people.
For Obama, it was a significant departure from his cautious avoidance of the subject in the past. Since he has begun to shift into campaign mode in 2012, Obama has spoken often about his success in fighting Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But he hadn't been asked directly about the drones this year until Monday.
Obama echoed the arguments of Pentagon and CIA officials, who often make the point in private discussions that the drones can perform targeted strikes and thereby substantially reduce the potential for civilian casualties associated with high-altitude bombing.
But Obama went well beyond that as he took issue with a Monday story in the New York Times, which reported that the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones to protect U.S. embassies, consulates and personnel stationed in Iraq following the withdrawal of American troops.
Some Iraqi officials are angry about the program and see it as a violation of their sovereignty, according to the Times report. But Obama said the U.S. still respects the sovereignty of other nations even as it uses drones within their borders.
"The truth of the matter is, we're not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside of Iraq," Obama said. "There's some surveillance to make sure that our embassy compound is protected."