U.S. acknowledges use of counterterrorism drones on foreign soils

WASHINGTON, May 1 : For the first time, the United States has formally acknowledged the use of drone strikes against terrorism suspects, with a senior Obama administration advisor providing some details about the controversial operations in foreign countries.

President Obama had instructed aides to be more open about the controversial issue, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said.

Previously, the U.S. officials refused to discuss the clandestine program for years, while human rights and other civil society organizations in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda-linked militants hiding in the tribal areas have been a major target, raised objections to the loss of civilian lives and called the strikes a violation the country’s sovereignty.

“So let me say it as simply as I can,” Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“Yes, in full accordance with the law — and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives — the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”

According to The Washington Post, the decision to acknowledge the use of drones, and that innocent civilians have been killed, comes at a time when the administration is moving to make its national security accomplishments a central issue in the presidential campaign.

Experts say President Obama has in recent days been seeking to exploit for political gain the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a U.S. Special Operations raid a year ago.

Obama responded to the criticism during a White House news conference Monday, saying, “I hardly think that you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place here.”

The Obama administration has faced pressure from civil liberties groups and members of Congress to provide a fuller account of the nation’s use of drone strikes. Doing so now may enable the White House to tout its successes against al-Qaeda without having to avoid mentioning what has become a key counterterrorism tool, the Post reported.

Critics of the drone programme described Brennan’s speech as a critical step in opening a wider debate on the issue, the Post noted in a report.

There had been extensive debate within the administration over the past year on how much to disclose about the drone programme, particularly decisions to target U.S. citizens without judicial review. Three Americans were killed in Yemen last year, including alleged al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son.

Drones’ capability to linger over targets for days enables unprecedented “surgical precision,” Brennan said, “the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it — that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.”

“There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect weapon, and remotely piloted aircraft are no exception,” Brennan said, acknowledging that innocent civilians have been killed but describing such cases as “exceedingly rare.”

The New America Foundation, which monitors the drone campaign in Pakistan, has estimated that civilians account for between 11 percent and 17 percent of those killed. Overall, U.S. officials have said that more than 2,000 militants and civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere since Obama took office in 2009.

Brennan cited respect for the “sovereignty” of other countries, even though a CIA drone strike in Pakistan on Sunday came just weeks after that country’s Parliament voted unanimously to demand that such operations end.

In a question-and-answer session, Brennan declined to discuss the use of signature strikes, which are based on intelligence showing suspicious behaviour rather than confirmation of the location of someone on the CIA or military target list.

The CIA has used such strikes in Pakistan for several years, but in April, Obama gave the agency and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command authority to begin using the tactic in Yemen as well.

Sources: MGCT, The Washington Post

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