Drone Program Something You 'Struggle With,' Obama Says
Obama has authorized six times the drone strikes in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in eight years
Jessica Yellin CNN Chief White House Correspondent
September 10, 2012WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The use of armed drones, or unmanned aircraft, to target and kill suspected terrorists has increased dramatically during the Obama administration but President Barack Obama said he struggles with the use of armed drones to target terrorists.
"That's something that you have to struggle with," the president said in a CNN interview at the White House conducted for the documentary "Obama Revealed: The man, The President" by this reporter. He continued, "if you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country."
According to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, the Obama administration "authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during George W. Bush's eight years in office."
The president has discussed the drone program only once previously, during a Google chat in January 2012.
In the CNN interview, he addressed his criteria for lethal action, saying a target must meet "very tight and very strict standards."
"It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws. It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States," Obama said.
While the president said capturing terrorists is preferable, it is not always possible.
"A lot of the terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones operate in very remote regions, and it's very difficult to capture them," Obama said.
Though it's been reported that the president personally approves the militants for targeting he repeatedly declined to acknowledge his direct involvement, insisting "I have to be careful."
"As president, ultimately I'm responsible for decisions that are made by the administration," he said.
Human rights organizations have criticized drone warfare; Human Rights Watch said the secretive standards for selecting targets sets "a deeply troublesome precedent."
When the U.S. killed Yemeni cleric and U.S.-born Anwar Al Awlaki, some defenders of American civil liberties viewed the killing as an assassination of an American citizen.
"There's no doubt that when an American has made the decision to affiliate itself with Al Qaeda and target fellow Americans that there is a legal justification for us to try to stop them from carrying out plots. What is also true, though, is as American citizens they are subject to the protections of the Constitution and due process," Obama said in the interview.
New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger said there are now more drone pilots in training in the Air Force than there are manned aircraft.
"And that's for a program that ten years ago, eleven years ago, basically didn't exist," Sanger told CNN.
As a matter of international law, the Obama administration has supported the use of armed drones to target terrorists as a practice "consistent with our inherent right of national self defense," Brennan said in an April speech.
"There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft forth's 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," according to Brennan.
Many U.S. officials have pointed to the effectiveness of drones in hitting targets while largely avoiding civilian casualties.
Though independent monitors plus local and international media report civilian casualties around drone strikes, the Obama administration insists they are very low.
The president told CNN, "we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think that there's going to be civilian casualties involved."
The president said he believes "our most powerful tool over the long term to reduce the terrorist threat" is to "live up to our values" and "shape opinion here and around the world."
"It's very important-- for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by rule of law? Are we abiding by due process? And then set up structures and institutional checks so that- you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we're not being true to who we are," Obama said.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Obama "may be known as the drone president, the president who relied on technology to do the business of troops."
It's one of the president's preferred tools in his effort to "dismantle" al Qaeda and unmanned aircrafts fitted with missiles have been used against suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Libya.
Covert drone strikes have resulted in the deaths of between 1,494 and 2,618 individuals during the Obama administration, according to the New America Foundation, more than four times what it was during the Bush administration. According to Bergen, approximately 11% of those deaths were civilians, a percentage that has dropped significantly since 2008, when the CIA tightened its target selection process, following a directive from the White House.
John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism adviser, defended the practice in his April speech, saying the strikes are "necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat - to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and save American lives."