WASHINGTON — President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor Monday defended using drones to launch missiles against militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, saying the growing use of armed unmanned aircraft had saved American lives and caused few civilian casualties.
The comments by John Brennan, coming shortly before the first anniversary of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, marks the first time a senior White House official has spoken at length in public about widely reported but officially secret drone operations.
The administration’s reliance on drones has stirred deep controversy at home and abroad. On Sunday, unmanned aircraft killed at least three suspected militants in the tribal region of northern Pakistan; such strikes have led to angry accusations that U.S. drones have killed or injured hundreds of civilians over three years.
But in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank, Brennan said civilian casualties from U.S. drones were “exceedingly rare” and were rigorously investigated.
“We take it seriously,” he said. “We go back and review our actions.”
Brennan said drones have reduced risks for U.S. pilots and crews, limited accidental casualties and helped prevent American ground troops from being forced into broader conflicts.
“Large, intrusive military deployments risk playing into Al Qaeda’s strategy of trying to draw us into long, costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment and inspire the next generation of terrorists,” he said.
In his speech, Brennan sought to answer critics who for years have demanded information on how U.S. officials decide whom they can kill in drone attacks and how often civilians have been accidentally killed.
“We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing,” Brennan said. “This is a very high bar.”
An individual must be deemed by U.S. intelligence to be actively involved in a plot to attack American forces, facilities or other targets, Brennan said. The intelligence is vetted at high levels, and the decision to fire a missile is made with “extraordinary care and thoughtfulness,” he said.
Brennan did not outline who takes part in the discussions or what standards of evidence are sufficient to launch a missile.
Four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes, including militant Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. Two other Americans identified as Al Qaeda supporters were inadvertently slain in drone strikes, and Awlaki’s teenage son, who was not considered a militant, was killed in a strike weeks after his father’s death.
Brennan provided little clarity on what safeguards are used in cases involving the targeting of U.S. citizens. “We ask ourselves additional questions,” he said without elaboration.
Critics challenged Brennan’s depiction of drone strikes as legal and precise.
“It is dangerous to give the president the authority to order the extrajudicial killing of any person, including any American, he believes to be a terrorist,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The administration insists that the program is closely supervised, but to propose that a secret deliberation that takes place entirely within the executive branch constitutes due process is to strip the 5th Amendment of its essential meaning.”
Until recently, no Obama administration official had publicly acknowledged the CIA’s covert drone program, although hundreds of drone strikes have been reported in northern Pakistan since 2009, and a few have taken place in Yemen and Somalia. The U.S. military also has used armed drones against targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Brennan emphasized throughout his speech that drone strikes are carried out against “individual terrorists.” He did not mention so-called signature strikes, a type of attack the U.S. has used in Pakistan against facilities and suspected militants without knowing the target’s name.
When asked later by a member of the audience whether the standards he outlined for drone attacks also applied to signature strikes, Brennan said he was not speaking of signature strikes but that all attacks launched by the U.S. are done in accordance with the rule of law.
The White House this month approved the use of signature strikes in Yemen after U.S. officials previously insisted that it would target only people whose names are known. The new rules permit attacks against individuals suspected of militant activities, even when their names are unknown or only partially known, a U.S. official said.
Brennan did not refer to the expanded authority for drone strikes in Yemen, but he described Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot group based in Yemen, as “Al Qaeda’s most active affiliate.”
Obama first publicly acknowledged the classified drone program Jan. 30 when he said the U.S. has to be “judicious in how we use drones,” in response to a question about attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Brennan said Monday that he was discussing drones because the president “has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.”
Drone strikes have helped reduce the ability of Al Qaeda to launch attacks in the United States, Brennan said. Over time, he said, he hopes to be able to reduce the pace of drone strikes, as “Al Qaeda fades into history” and “our partners grow stronger.”
Ten minutes into Brennan’s remarks, a woman stood in the front of the audience and began denouncing the targeting of U.S. citizens with drones.
As a security guard picked her up and carried her out of the room, the woman continued shouting. “I love my country,” she said. “You are making us less safe by killing people around the world. Shame on you.”