White House Defends Drone Program

The White House's chief counterterrorism adviser offered a detailed defense on Monday of America's use of drones against al-Qaida terrorists, including the targeted killings of U.S. citizens. John Brennan's comments come on the eve of the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with a look at the Obama administration's controversial use of drones to target and kill suspected terrorists. Today, the White House counterterrorism chief gave a lengthy defense of the program. John Brennan says the president wants to be more open with the public about the use of lethal force against al-Qaida.

JOHN BRENNAN: President Obama believes that done carefully, deliberately and responsibly, we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation's security.

CORNISH: John Brennan went on to address some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the U.S. strong program and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us to discuss what he said. And Dina, let's start with those criticism one at a time, starting with the argument that the U.S. has no authority to use drones outside the traditional battlefield. In other words, Afghanistan, fine, Yemen, no. How did Brennan address that?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, you know, the administration has been saying for some time now that international law allows them to chase members of al-Qaida wherever they are, including Pakistan and Yemen. Here's how Brennan put it.

BRENNAN: 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 can sense or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So the key issue here is that the administration doesn't think it's limited to traditional battlefields like Afghanistan. I mean, Brennan says these targeted drone strikes outside the fields of battle are OK if the U.S. is tracking specific members of terrorist groups. Now, there's a second question that's related to this and that is, does the U.S. need permission from the country where the strike is happening?

So let's take Yemen. We know from the WikiLeaks documents that they gave permission. Then, there's Pakistan, which is more complicated. There was just a drone strike there over the weekend, but their parliament recently passed a law banning drone strikes. So the administration says it only does this with permission. But in that case, it's harder to know what's going on.

CORNISH: Another criticism, Dina, is the targeting of U.S. citizens. And this is very controversial. So how did John Brennan address it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, clearly, the administration thinks that's legal. The attorney general defended it recently after there was a drone strike that killed an American-born radical Imam, named Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last year. Now, Brennan didn't add much to the debate over whether it was legal to target U.S. citizens who were members of al-Qaida. He just reiterated how rigorous the process was to get on this kill list and that there is even greater scrutiny if you're a U.S. citizen.

Now, for a lot of civil liberties groups, they still find that answer completely unacceptable because it does away with the constitutional right to due process. I mean, the executive branch, essentially, becomes judge, jury and executioner.

CORNISH: Another issue, that of drone strikes causing civilian casualties. What did John Brennan have to say about that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he actually talked about that more directly, and said that the drones had, in his words, astonishing precision and they actually dramatically reduce the danger to civilians. Here is a little more of what he said.

BRENNAN: Compared against other options, a pilot operating the aircraft remotely with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, what's interesting about this is that drones are seen as different from other weapons, maybe because the pilots are remote, so they get this extra scrutiny. But the case that Brennan is trying to make is that it actually should be the complete opposite. You know, as he put it in the tape, drones are actually a better option compared to regular bombs if you're looking to minimize civilian casualties. And if you are looking to minimize those casualties, he'd make the case for the use of drones.

CORNISH: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you so much for talking with us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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