Ex-Obama Adviser On Plan To Limit Drones: Why Did We Wait?

President Obama gave a major speech Thursday intended to narrow the scope of the U.S. fight against terrorism. He addressed the administration's much-criticized drone program. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Adm. Dennis Blair, who was Obama's top intelligence adviser from 2009 to 2010, and a vocal critic of the administration's drone campaign.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

We begin this hour with President Obama's effort to narrow the scope of the U.S. war on terror. In last week's speech at the National Defense University, the president gave his administration's most robust defense to date for the use of drones, but he also outlined changes to the program. And he called again for the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From our use of drones to the detention of terror suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

MARTIN: In a moment, we'll hear what changes could be coming for detainees in Guantanamo Bay. But first, more on how the president is changing the drone operations that have ramped up under his administration.

Admiral Dennis Blair served as President Obama's top intelligence advisor from 2009 to 2010. Since leaving the job, Blair has been a vocal critic of the administration's drone campaign. He liked some of what the president proposed.

ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: My reaction to some of them was why did we wait so long? And then on - there's a third category in which you want to say yes, but, but. But I thought it was a pretty unfinished piece of work for an administration that's been working on this for over four years now.

MARTIN: So, now there is more transparency just by having the president acknowledged that this program is happening. Is that a step forward?

BLAIR: It's a partial step forward. But I think the drone program ought to be conducted by the Department of Defense, under the normal rules of war, laws of armed conflict which the United States and other advanced countries have worked out over the years. It can be integrated with the other parts of our policy - diplomatic, economic, public policy.

When we do it as something that's bigger part of our policy - as a drone program is - as a secret deniable or leaked campaign, we just put ourselves in the position of having to answer for a lot of things that don't happen, not being able to put together a full picture. And I think we're taking a step in that direction but we're not there yet.

MARTIN: The administration has announced that it intends to move more and more of the drone operations over to the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command. Can you explain how that would work? What protocols are in place for a drone strike that happens under the auspices of the Department of Defense, that are not in place at the CIA?

BLAIR: So let me just talk about killing someone on the battlefield with military force. For that to happen, one of your opponents, one of your enemies has to be declared as a hostile force. And there are very strict rules as to how that's done within the Armed Forces. Different levels of command have different authorities to do it. People who wield the weapons are trained in them. All of the orders are reviewed, extensive legal review; it has a chain of command to watch it. If something goes wrong there's immediately an investigation and things are fixed.

These intelligence agencies operating under covert action authorities don't have this depth, this breath, this history. And so, people are naturally more suspicious of what actually goes on there. And I think that it ought to be done by the Department of Defense for those reasons.

MARTIN: It sounds like that is the intention of the administration. Will that increase transparency then?

BLAIR: Yes, absolutely. Think of what just happened with the use of force by the Armed Forces. Reporters are embedded. The American people know quite well what our Armed Forces are doing in places...

MARTIN: But that's not the case with the Joint Special Operations Command. I mean that still is a highly secretive operation.

BLAIR: Yeah. Yeah, individual operations are secret. But by and large, the overall structure of longtime campaigns is much more understood to be conducted by a set of procedures that are pretty well established and pretty well followed.

MARTIN: The White House is also tightening the criteria for targeting someone with a drone strike. Most notably saying - and I'm reading now - that the United States will, quote, "use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat." This of course implies that this was not the standard before?

BLAIR: That was my reaction, too. And then, on the other hand, if Ayman al-Zawahiri - who is now the head of al-Qaida since Osama bin Laden's death, and has been responsible for killing lots of Americans in the past and wants to do more in the future. If he is spotted with some other of his group around him, does that mean we don't take that shot? So I find this tightening of the criteria very strange.

MARTIN: So you actually think this tightening of the criteria is too tight.

BLAIR: I think they should be consistent. The concept of collateral damage is related to the importance of the target. And they do involve killing some people who are not directly involved in the conflict. That's sort of the way war is.

MARTIN: You're referring to this other change the White House is proposing when it comes to civilian casualties. That in order to target someone with a strike, the U.S. government has to be, quote, "near certain that the terrorist target is present." And must have, quote, "near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed."

You think that standard is too high.

BLAIR: I do. I do, yeah.

MARTIN: That is a controversial position and you're saying that the president is bowing to political pressure?

BLAIR: I think that the administration is bowing to criticism. If you decide to use weapons, whatever they are, there is going to be a degree of killing of those who are not your actual opponents, who are in the area for one reason or another. And we've worked out ways for deciding how to handle that. And I don't think they ought to be ratcheted up or ratcheted down for a new weapon system, like a drone, any more than they have for other weapon systems. So I don't think they ought to be adjusted based on criticism that one is receiving.

MARTIN: Admiral Dennis Blair, he is the former director of National Intelligence.

Admiral, thanks very much for taking the time.

BLAIR: Good to talk to you, Rachel.

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