from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

How U.S. Officials and Congress Have Defended Drone Strikes in Light of the Torture Report

December 12, 2014

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Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, White House, December 11, 2014.

Q: And finally, has the President ever sought a formal assessment from the intelligence community about whether the drone program is a net asset, either because of our moral authority, or in terms of creating more enemies than it takes off the battlefield?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not aware of any intelligence assessment like this.  You can certainly check with the office of the Director of National Intelligence to see if they’re aware of anything like this that they could talk to you about.


CIA Director John O. Brennan Holds a News Conference On the CIA’s Former Detention and Interrogation Program, Central Intelligence Agency, December 11, 2014.

QUESTION:  Your agency is involved in overseeing the drone program in which we know, from the government’s own statements, you know, that there have been some civilians, innocent civilians, killed alongside terrorists. I’m wondering if you feel that there’s enough control over those programs and that we’re not going to be here in a few years with another director having to answer these same questions about the loss of trust from the public, from policymakers.

BRENNAN: I’m not going to talk about any type of operational activity that this agency is involved in currently. I’m just not going to do it. I will tell you, though, that during my tenure at the White House, as the president’s assistant for counterterrorism, that the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles that you refer to as drones in the counterterrorism effort has done tremendous work to keep this country safe. The ability to use these platforms and advanced technologies, it has advanced the counterterrorism mission and the U.S. military has done some wonderful things with these platforms. And in terms of precision of effort, accuracy and making sure that this country, this country’s military does everything possible to minimize to the great extent possible the loss of life of noncombatants, I think there’s a lot for this country and this White House and the military to be proud of.


Interview with Maine Senator Angus King, CNN’s “The Situation Room,” December 11, 2014.

BLITZER: As a member of the Intelligence Committee, the CIA. And so without revealing any classified information, the drone program is obviously very well-known. Do you have a problem, without going into specifics, and I don’t want you to break any of the classification rules, do you as a United States senator, who oversees this program, have problem with it?

KING: I believe that the CIA is acting within the law and the intentions right now. That’s as far as I want to go. You’re trying to get me to say something I’m not...

BLITZER: No, I don’t want you to break any rules. I don’t want you to violate sources and methods or anything like that.

KING: And I’m not ducking the question. I’m just trying to follow the rules.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, the critics of President Obama, they say, yes, he didn’t like the torture, he didn’t like the excessive interrogation, but these people, except for one that we know of in Afghanistan, they lived to talk about it, they’re still alive to this very day.

When you send out a drone with a Hellfire missile and you go into Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen or someplace and you just kill them, in the process, you might kill relatives or family members. They’re not going to be interrogated. They’re just going to die.

KING: Again, Wolf, I can’t confirm any information about the program. I’m sorry.


Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, White House, December 10, 2014.

Q: You have repeatedly talked about moral authority.  So can you explain how the President believes that it’s un-American to use these techniques but it was okay to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people around the world, innocent civilians were killed.  What’s the moral equivalency there?  How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that the difference here, Ed—and this is a stark difference in the way that the United States conducts our policy and the way that terrorists around the world conduct their policy—that there is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances that are included in the system to ensure that any counterterrorism action that’s taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives.

Q: But they do in the end.  I understand there are safeguards, but in the end, we’ve seen many cases around the world where U.S. drones have killed innocent civilians, despite those safeguards.  So how do you have moral authority?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that is a stark difference from the tactics that are employed by our enemies, who seek to use car bombs to actually target innocent civilians.

Q: Yet you still kill civilians.  No one is defending the terrorists’ tactics, but by your tactics—

MR. EARNEST:  But you’re asking about our moral authority, and I think there is a very clear difference…There is a very clear difference between the tactics that are used by terrorists and the counterterrorism tactics that are employed by the United States of America that go to great lengths to protect the lives of innocent civilians.  In fact, many of these terrorists that we’re talking about—and, again, many of these counterterrorism activities that are used against terrorists are targeting terrorists that themselves have targeted local populations—that have targeted fellow Muslims in some situations.  So the efforts that are taken by this administration to limit or to prevent innocent civilian casualties are consistent with our values and are consistent with our broader strategy for protecting the American people.


FBI: Torture Report May Spark Terror Threat,” CNN’s “The Situation Room,” December 9, 2014.

SEN JAMES RISCH (R-ID): That’s true. And the more that’s reported and now affirmed by this report, it is going to damage our ability to go to our partners—and some of them are not necessarily allies—but also to allies and say, "Look, you’ve got this information. We’ve got this. Let’s work together on this." They’re going to be very reluctant to do that. A good example of that is the drone program today. You know, they talk about interrogation here. We don’t do that anymore. There’s no interrogation—

WOLF BLITZER: There is interrogation, but not through these enhanced interrogation techniques. They question these terrorists.

RISCH: They aren’t picking up prisoners anymore. What they do is when they identify a high-value target, the target is droned. There’s no terrorist left to interrogate.

BLITZER: They’re not questioned, they just kill them, is that what you said?

RISCH: That’s right. That’s what the administration—

BLITZER: They don’t question anymore. I want to be specific here. So what you’re saying is President Obama has ruled out torturing prisoners, but he supports just killing them? Is that what you’re saying?

RISCH: You’re saying that more directly than I would. Certainly, he has ruled out the torture, as has everybody. There’s nobody thinks that this is—this is a good thing to do. Having said that, when and if we get these people—and that is very, very rarely—they are interrogated. But more importantly, when we do identify these people, instead of trying to get our hands on them, they are subject to our covert drone program that’s out there.

BLITZER: Which is targeted assassinations, killing of these suspects?

RISCH: I wouldn’t call them assassinations. These are people in the fight against America. It is only people who we are engaged in conflict with, in war with that are identified and listed as possible targets for the drone program.


Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, White House, December 8, 2014.

QUESTION: So what’s the difference between (inaudible) interrogation techniques and drones that kill civilians?

EARNEST: Well, Nadia, the president gave a pretty detailed speech on this topic about a year and a half or so ago, where he talked about the desire to try to bring more transparency to some of the counterterrorism programs that are implemented by the United States.

Despite that commitment to transparency, there are still some limits about what I can say from here, but I can tell you that the president does want to be sure, that as we execute the counterterrorism strategy that he has outlined, that we are mindful of the impact that those strategies have on our ability to win hearts and minds.


Brian Bennett, “Dianne Feinstein Leaving Intelligence Job Amid Clash on Tactics Report,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2014.

Feinstein also defended the CIA against efforts by the Pentagon to eclipse the agency’s covert drone program. She believes the CIA has a better track record than the military and more experience with the strikes. "They have the patience and they wait until the situation is right," Feinstein said. "There are not hot heads" making the decision on when to fire, she said. She has sent committee staff members into the CIA "more than 50 times" to make unannounced visits to watch the operation of the drone program, she said. The number of civilians killed in CIA strikes has declined in the last few years, she said. "Collateral damage is low," Feinstein said, which was one of her goals when she increased oversight of the targeting-killing program after she took control of the committee.

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