WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor defended using drones to launch deadly missiles against militants and terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, arguing Monday that the unmanned aircraft have helped prevent deeper military conflicts.
The comments by John Brennan, shortly before the first anniversary of the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden, marked the first time that a senior White House official has spoken at length in public about drone operations, which have been widely reported but are officially covert.
The administration’s growing reliance on drones has stirred deep controversy at home and abroad. On Sunday, unmanned aircraft killed at least three suspected militants in the tribal region of northern Pakistan despite the Pakistani government's insistence that the U.S. attacks have infringed on the country's sovereignty and killed or injured hundreds of civilians over the last three years.
But in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank, Brennan said civilian casualties from drone strikes were “exceedingly rare.”
“We take it seriously,” he said. “We go back and review our actions.”
Brennan strained to answer critics who have sought information for years on how U.S. officials decide whom to target, and how often civilians have been accidentally killed.
“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.”
Brennan said the campaign of targeted drone strikes has reduced danger to U.S. pilots, limited civilian casualties and helped prevent deeper U.S. military actions overseas.
“Large, intrusive military deployments risk playing into Al Qaeda’s strategy of trying to draw us into long, costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment and inspire the next generation of terrorists,” he said.
Until recently, no Obama administration official publicly acknowledged the covert drone program, although hundreds of CIA drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since 2009.
Obama acknowledged the classified program Jan. 30 when he said the U.S. has to be “judicious in how we use drones,” in response to a question about attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Brennan said he was speaking about the drone program because Obama had instructed officials to be more open about it.
-- Brian Bennett
Photo: Marc Grossman, right, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, holds talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, left, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 26. Pakistan reiterated its opposition to U.S. drone attacks in its territory. Credit: Sajjad Qayyumsajjad Qayyum / AFP