“I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” – President Barack Obama
Set against the backdrop of events marking the one year anniversary of the killing of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin-Laden, the Obama administration has for the first time formally acknowledged its use of drone missile strikes that have proven effective in decimating Al-Qaeda’s ranks as well as killing other high value targets.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington on April 30th, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, affirmed, “the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”
While Mr. Brennan avoided discussing the true extent of the drone program like how many drone strikes have been conducted or how many combatants and noncombatants have been killed, Mr. Brennan did address the ethics of the program and its legal foundation, which has been a point of contention for many civil liberty groups and some members of Congress.
Here is a portion of John Brennan’s remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The full transcript can be found here:
As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense. There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose, or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.
Second, targeted strikes are ethical. Without question, the ability to target a specific individual from hundreds or thousands of miles away raises profound questions. Here, I think it is useful to consider such strikes against the basic principles of the law of war that govern the use of force.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement that the target have definite military value. In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. We have the authority to target them with lethal force, just as we target enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as Germans and Japanese commanders during World War II.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective, while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.