WASHINGTON -- Saying that President Barack Obama "has instructed us to be more open with the American people" in the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists abroad, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the controversial strikes are "ethical and just," with each one being carefully vetted.
"As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense," Brennan said in prepared remarks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat," Brennan added.
Speaking as part of a media blitz to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS at his hideout in Pakistan, Brennan explained why the use of unmanned aerial vehicles makes sense to target not only foreign terrorists but also those like American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who are U.S. citizens.
Brennan's speech was interrupted when a young woman stood up to "speak out on behalf of those innocent victims" killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia," she said. "They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan? How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how may innocents have been killed?" A burly guard lifted the protester and carried her away as she named alleged drone victims and declared she was speaking out "on behalf of the Constitution -- on behalf of the rule of law."
(Video of the incident above)
Brennan is just the latest administration official to defend the use of drones outside of "hot battlefields" like Afghanistan. The State Department's top lawyer made the case two years ago. More recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has said it is legal to target U.S. citizens who pose a threat to the country. The Pentagon's top lawyer has said the same. Even President Obama has said publicly that it is permissible to use drones to kill "active terrorists" in Pakistan's tribal areas.
But with the 2012 presidential election heating up as the Republican primaries draw to a close and the Obama campaign's making bin Laden's demise a campaign asset, Brennan's speech meticulously laid out the rationale for the policy.
He opened by noting that "the core al Qaeda leadership is a shadow of its former self," a scenario underscored by documents seized in bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The man responsible for the spectacular 9/11 attacks was struggling to attract new recruits when he was killed and had acknowledged "disaster after disaster." He even urged his leaders to flee the tribal regions and go to places, “away from aircraft photography and bombardment," Brennan said.
Brennan announced that some of bin Laden's documents will be published online this week, for the first time, by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
But the main focus of Brennan's speech was to address, point by point, the many criticisms of the growing use in recent years of drones to target militants in countries like Yemen and Pakistan.
Despite reports of civilian casualties and the alleged targeting of rescuers who respond minutes after a strike, Brennan claimed that the "precision" of drones have limited collateral damage. Civilian deaths would be much higher if conventional military force were used, he said. Targeted strikes "can be a wise choice" because they eliminate the need for "large, intrusive military deployments [that] 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."
Still, Brennan acknowledged that Washington "can and must do a better job of addressing the mistaken belief among some foreign publics that we engage in these strikes casually, as if we are simply unwilling to expose U.S forces to the dangers faced everyday by people in those regions."
Added Brennan: "There is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al Qaeda terrorist and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life."
Obama and his advisers "are very mindful" that as the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft, "we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians," Brennan said.
"If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly," Brennan said. "If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards for their use, then we must do so as well. We cannot expect of others what we will not do ourselves. President Obama has therefore demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards -- that, at every step, we be as thorough and deliberate as possible."
Every proposed strike goes through a detailed review process that not only determines whether the suspected terrorist is a legitimate target but whether there is no other way to capture or deter the person from carrying out an attack, Brennan said. And since there are "literally thousands" of al Qaeda, Taliban and affiliated militants, "we have to be strategic."
"Even if it is lawful to pursue a specific member of al Qaeda, we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security," Brennan added, referring to criteria that the person should be involved in "an actual ongoing threat" and an operational leader whose killing would disrupt a future attack. Lethal strikes, he said, are not "about punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance."
Brennan closed on a personal note. "For many people -- in our government and across the country -- the issue of targeted strikes raised profound moral questions," he said. "It forces us to confront deeply held personal beliefs and our values as a nation."
"If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven’t struggled with this, then they haven’t spent much time thinking about it," Brennan said. "I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism."
"This is an important statement -- first because it includes an unambiguous acknowledgement of the targeted killing program and second because it includes the administration’s clearest explanation thus far of the program’s purported legal basis," the American Civil Liberties Union's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, stated in an email to The Huffington Post.
"But Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis," Jaffer added. "We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program -- particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects. And the administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, could be killed without charge, trial, or judicial process of any kind.”
This story has been updated to include remarks by a protester who interrupted John Brennan's remarks and a comment by the American Civil Liberties Union's Jameel Jaffer.