WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday offered its first extensive explanation of how U.S. officials decide when to use drones to kill suspected terrorists — a tactic that the government often treats as a classified secret even though it is widely known around the world.
“Yes, in full accordance with the law — and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives — the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The use of armed drones to strike at suspected militants in places like Pakistan and Yemen has grown dramatically under the Obama administration, and the emergence of the new technology — which has sharply reduced the cost and risk of warfare to its operators, making it easier to engage in sporadic combat in far-flung regions — has led to growing concerns both about civilian casualties and about a future in which other countries also acquire drones.
The U.S. government has been reluctant to talk openly about its use of drones, apparently in part because foreign governments that granted permission for strikes did so on the condition that the deals would remain secret.
Defending drone strikes as “legal, ethical, and wise,” Brennan said the president had directed officials to be more open about how they “carefully, deliberately and responsibly” decide to kill terrorism suspects — including what he described as “the rigorous standards and process of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes against a specific member of al-Qaida outside the hot battlefield of Afghanistan.”
Merely being a member of al-Qaida or one of its allies is not enough to be targeted, Brennan said, because that describes many thousands of people. Rather, policymakers approve the killing of only those who pose a particular threat, he said, like operational leaders who are planning attacks against U.S. interests, lower-level militants training for such an attack, and those who possess “unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack.”
Brennan also said the administration preferred capturing such suspects alive — usually by telling a foreign government where to arrest them — and would authorize a strike only if that was not feasible.
“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,” he said. “This is a very high bar. Of course, how we identify an individual naturally involves intelligence sources and methods, which I will not discuss.”