President Obama Explains Drone Strikes

President Barack Obama gave one of his most thorough explanations yet for how his administration uses drone aircraft to target enemies of the United States. His administration – today – released its estimate that between 64 and 116 civilians have been inadvertently killed in drone strikes since taking office.

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Question: So one issue that Judge Garland would likely never be able to consider if he were confirmed concerns the President’s authority to conduct drone strikes away from active battlefields. And these are strikes that you have continuously authorized on the basis of vague legal standards that you unilaterally deem to be satisfied in each case without ever appearing before a court, and in the process killing hundreds of innocent civilians as well as, in some cases, American citizens. So my question is, how are these killings morally and legally justified? And what kind of message does this drone program send about America’s values to the world, the American people, and to law students like myself who refuse to put our trust in an opaque process?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that’s a great question — although I will say that I will dispute some of the underlying premises that you asserted as facts. But I think it’s an important topic, and it’s a fair one.

When I came into office, we were still in the midst of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaida was still highly active. And drone technologies began to develop in parallel with — had developed prior to my presidency, but started to really accelerate in terms of the technology and the precision with which strikes could be taken.

And the challenge for me as Commander-in-Chief has consistently been how do you think about this new technology in a way that is consistent with morality, ideals, laws of war, but is also consistent with my first priority as President and Commander-in-Chief, which is to keep all of you safe, including you.

And so I think it’s fair to say that in the first couple of years of my presidency, the architecture — legal architecture, administrative architecture, command structures — around how these were utilized was underdeveloped relative to how fast the technology was moving. So another way of saying this is our military or our intelligence teams started seeing this as really effective. And they started just going because the goal was let’s get al Qaeda, let’s get these leaders. There’s a training camp here. There’s a high-value target there. Let’s move. And it was — the decision-making was not ad hoc, but it was embedded in decisions that are made all the time about a commander leading a military operation, or an intelligence team trying to take out a terrorist. And there wasn’t enough of an overarching structure, right?

So you may recall — but if not, I’m sure we can send it to you — I gave a speech at the National Defense University in which I said that we have to create an architecture for this because the potential for abuse — given the remoteness of these weapons and their lethality, we’ve got to come up with a structure that governs how we’re approaching it. And that’s what we’ve done. So I’ve put forward what’s called a presidential directive. It’s basically a set of administrative guidelines whereby these weapons are being used.

Now, we actually did put forward a non-classified version of what those directives look like. And it says that you can’t use these weapons unless you have near certainty that there will not be civilian casualties; that you have near certainty that the targets you are hitting are, in fact, terrorist organizations that are intending to do imminent harm to the United States. And you’ve got all the agencies who are involved in that process, they have to get together and approve that. And it goes to the highest, most senior levels of our government in order for us to make those decisions.

And what I’ve also said that we need to start creating a process whereby this — whereby public accountability is introduced so that you or citizens or members of Congress outside of the Intelligence Committee can look at the facts and see whether or not we’re abiding by what we say are these norms.

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