By Dan Robinson
President Obama’s acknowledgment, in a global Internet video chat event Monday, that U.S. drone strike target tribal areas in Pakistan brought some tough questions and cautious responses during a White House news briefing on Tuesday. One human rights group has urged the administration to clarify legal justifications for the use of drones.
In Monday’s video chat on Google, Mr. Obama responded to a question from a young man in Brooklyn, New York, who noted that the president had ordered more drone attacks in his first year in office than his predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush.
The man then asked how the president believes drone attacks, which he said cause “a lot of civilian casualties,” help the United States and whether they are worth it.
Mr. Obama at first remarked about a Monday New York Times report about the use of unarmed drones in Iraq to help ensure security for U.S. diplomats. But then he addressed the general issue of drone strikes and what he called a perception that care is not taken in their execution.
“I want to make sure that people understand that actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” said President Obama. “For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against al-Qaida and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it has been applied.”
But it was the president’s response to a follow-up question from another participant in the video chat that has stirred controversy.
Asked whether drone strikes “send a message” that the U.S. is interfering in other countries’ affairs, he said “pinpoint” strikes enhance the U.S. ability to respect the sovereignty of countries and limit incursions into their territory. And then he said this:
“Obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] in going after al-Qaida suspects who are up in very tough terrain in the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Obama. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the one we are already engaging in.”
That was a public acknowledgment of something that had never been confirmed by U.S. officials – the use of drones against militant forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Pakistan has publicly condemned drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, although they are believed to be carried out with the help of Pakistani intelligence.
After Mr. Obama’s remarks, Pakistan called the attacks unlawful, counterproductive and unacceptable, and a spokesman challenged the president’s description of advantages they provide.
On Tuesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney carefully avoided comment about secret operations, emphasizing Mr. Obama’s assertion that counter-terrorism efforts are targeted, surgical and precise to minimize “unintended casualties and damage.”
Carney responded this way when asked if Mr. Obama had purposefully spoken about a covert program.
“He is the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, he is the president of the United States, I would point you to his comments,” said Carney. “I am not going to discuss broadly or specifically supposed covert programs, I would just point you to what he said.”
Debate continues about how many people, including civilians, have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan. One organization, the Washington-based New America Foundation, says between 1,700 and 2,700 people have died in the past eight years.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International urged the administration to “disclose details of the legal and factual basis for the lethal use of drones in Pakistan” and clarify “the rules of engagement.”
This past December, another human rights organization issued a similar call. In a letter to President Obama, Human Rights Watch urged greater “public accountability” for CIA drone strikes, and it urged the administration to “clarify its legal rationale for targeted killings.”