US defends drone strikes despite civilian deaths

US defends drone strikes despite civilian deaths

US defends drone strikes despite civilian deaths

Pakistani extremist groups shout anti-US slogans in Quetta against the reopening of the NATO supply route to Afghanistan. AFP photo

White House counterterrorism official John Brennan publicly described how al-Qaeda targets are chosen for drone strikes, marking the first time the Obama administration has described the widely known practice so openly and in such detail.

In a landmark speech on counter-terrorism “ethics,” the Obama aide insisted the program was legal, ethical, proportional and saved American lives. “Yes, in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. and to save American lives, the government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He acknowledged, however, that civilian targets have been hit.

According to the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2004 and 2011, 385 civilians were killed in U.S. drone strikes. Of those statistics, the Bureau added that around half of the dead were children under the age of 18. A Pakistani human rights lawyer also said over 2,800 of the 3,000 people killed over the past seven years in drone strikes in Pakistan were civilians.

Brennan’s comments did not directly acknowledge the CIA’s covert campaign in Pakistan. Drones have killed scores of what the U.S. government says are al-Qaeda suspects in tribal areas of Pakistan and some other countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Pakistan’s government recently condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed three suspected militants in northwestern Pakistan on April 29. Pakistan wants the drone attacks to stop, arguing that such strikes are counter-productive because they kill civilians, exacerbate anti-U.S. sentiment and violate sovereignty.

Weighing capture against threat

The U.S. recently began launching drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen under a new authority approved by Obama which allows the CIA and military to fire even when the identity of those who may be killed is unknown.

Brennan said targets are chosen by weighing whether there is a way to capture the wanted person against how great a threat the person presents to Americans. Targeting al-Qaeda members with lethal force by drones is legal, Brennan said, comparing it to targeting Japanese and German commanders in World War II. “Broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of Al-Qaeda has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved,” Brennan said. He argued that the strikes are ethical, proportional and conform to U.S. efforts to spare innocent civilians from being caught in crossfire. “It is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft,” Brennan said.

Compiled from AFP and AP stories by the Daily News staff.