Obama defends drone program

In a major policy speech at the National Defense University last week, President Barack Obama defended the U.S. drone program, insisting that lethal strikes against Al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists are necessary to save American lives.

Read more: Holder confirms targeted killings of 4 U.S. citizens in Yemen, Pakistan

“The use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute,” said Obama. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

During his speech, Obama highlighted two reasons why the drone program should remain a key tool in the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy:

Reason #1: Drone strikes have been effective in disrupting deadly plots against the United States and its European allies.

“Dozens of highly skilled Al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” said Obama.

The President also noted that intelligence recovered in Abbottabad, Pakistan showed that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lamented the potency of U.S. drone strikes. “We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives,” bin Laden reportedly wrote.

Reason #2: Drones offer more precise strikes to help minimize the risks of civilian and U.S. troop casualties compared to conventional military operations.

Obama said the type of special forces operation that took down Osama bin Laden carried “immense” risks and “cannot be the norm”.

He attributed the success of the bin Laden raid to the “meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces” but acknowledged that it also “depended on some luck” in that the U.S. commandos didn’t have to engage in an extended gunfight with hostile forces in Pakistan and that they were able to evacuate safely despite crashing a helicopter in the compound.

“It is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world,” the President said. “The results would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.”

Furthermore, Obama pointed out that conventional military options – such as ground invasions, missiles, and air strikes – are “likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage” than drone strikes.

Obama’s assertion is backed by retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally. In her testimony last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, McSally submitted that drones offer an “unprecedented level of persistence, oversight, and precision” as means of lethal force, especially if the window of opportunity to take out the target is “fleeting”.

For example, according to McSally, a cruise missile strike requires a minimum of 30 minutes of planning and another 30 minutes of travel time, during which the condition on the ground could change (i.e. more civilians arriving on the scene), and once that missile is launched, it cannot be diverted.

She also noted that on the regular battlefield, air strike decisions are often made by the Lieutenant-rank pilot and an Airman First Class on the ground. “If they hit the wrong target and there is collateral damage then there is a great level of potential issues related to that wrong decision,” said McSally. Moreover, she pointed out, fighter jets are more constrained by timing and logistics, such as refueling, than drones.

In comparison, McSally said it takes about 200 individuals – including the drone operators, intelligence analysts, maintenance and equipment personnel, and lawyers – to oversee the operation of a single drone for a 24-hour orbit.

The drones also offer more flexibility in terms waiting until the right moment to strike (to minimize civilian casualties) and being able to abort the attack at the last minute, according to McSally.

“The [drone lethal strike] process actually has a great deal of extraordinary scrutiny: You have the chain of command watching; you have the intelligence analysts watching; you actually have the lawyers sitting side-by-side with you; and you can wait until the moment that you have identified the positive identification and all the criteria has been met, and you can also abort at the last minute,” said McSally.

Peter Bergen, Director of National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in April that the civilian casualty rate has “declined significantly over time.”

“Initially in…2006, it was almost 100%. Now today, confirmed civilian casualties we calculate about 2%,” said Bergen. “We’ve seen a very strong drop but there are still civilian casualties.”

Bergen attributed the casualty rate decline of drone strikes to better intelligence, smaller payloads (i.e. missiles), and greater involvement of the President in “adjudicating potential strikes where there might be a civilian casualty.

Read more: Transcript: Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi’s testimony on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

Obama acknowledges need for greater transparency & oversight of drone program

But even as Obama defended the efficacy of the drone program in the war on terror, he acknowledged that more transparency and oversight are needed to guard against abuse of the drone program.

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama recognized. “For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

As a first step, Obama said that a framework governing the use of drones has been codified in the Presidential Policy Guidance.

The White House will also review proposals to improve oversight of the drone program, including the establishment of an independent review board within the executive branch or a special court (modeled after the FISA court) to “evaluate and authorize” lethal strikes.

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