U.S. drone strikes should be limited to targets that present a “real, immediate threat to us” and conducted by the military rather than the CIA, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
“Drones are a very, very effective weapon and we will continue to use them, but in a more circumscribed manner to make sure that we are going after the high-value targets that present a real, immediate threat to us,” Powell said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
The comments by Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are the first time he has spoken publicly about the unmanned aircraft known as drones. His remarks went further than the steps President Barack Obama outlined in a May 23 speech to tighten the rules governing how drone strikes will be conducted.
Powell, 76, said the Pentagon should be responsible for operating drone strikes after a period in which the Central Intelligence Agency directed many such attacks. The CIA has targeted alleged terrorists in places that aren’t overt war zones, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
“The CIA didn’t do this kind of targeted assassination just a few years ago,” Powell said. “And then because of 9/11 and what we were going through for the last years, they took more and more responsibility.”
Along with giving the military full authority, Obama should work with Congress to revise the rules, Powell said.
Obama, calling the drone campaign justified, pledged to work with Congress to add scrutiny to the program and administration officials said the military instead of the CIA will be the lead authority for such strikes. Powell said authority for drone use should be shifted immediately and exclusively to the Defense Department.
“This doesn’t mean the CIA has nothing to do with it,” Powell said. “The intelligence will come from the CIA and other sources and then be fed into the Department of Defense.”
Powell praised Obama’s speech as “balanced,” and credited him for seeking to be “more careful of the use of force, especially with respect to drones.”
While drone attacks have been effective against their targets, they have stoked a backlash against the U.S., particularly when they cause civilian deaths. Powell said he was recently reminded by a Pakistani “senior officer” about the unintended consequences of the CIA drone strikes.
“He said if you make a mistake and you end up killing 10 or 15 villagers or 20 villagers, in addition to the person you’re after, you have created 20 new enemies,” Powell said.
Obama signed new presidential policy guidelines that give a bigger role for the drone program to the military rather than the CIA and set standards to be applied in carrying out strikes. Those include not using drones when a target can be captured and only when there is an imminent threat.
Powell in his comments cautioned against military involvement in Syria and praised Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts “to create a diplomatic environment that will permit a political solution” in the country where a civil war has raged for more than two years.
“This is the time for caution,” Powell said.
Powell said he has negotiated in the past with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and he termed him a “pathological liar.”
“So I’ve got no trust for him, but at the time I’m not sure what replaces him,” Powell said. “The conflict will not be over just because he suddenly walks away. I think a new conflict will emerge, and we’ll have to determine what role we will play in resolving that.”
Commenting on the furor among Republican lawmakers over the administration’s talking points following the attack last year in which four U.S. diplomats were killed in Benghazi, Libya, Powell said: “I don’t think it’s a full-fledged scandal.”
“All the chatter about the talking points, I don’t care about the talking points,” Powell said.
“I’m more interested in what was known before with respect to the risks they were about to accept and what was done on the ground to negate that risk,” he said. “That’s what we ought to be looking at.”
Powell said that during his time in government he was mindful of the need to seek the “right balance” between informing the public and keeping secrets, particularly when disclosure might put troops or others at risk. Still, he said that based on what he has read, the Obama administration went “perhaps over the line” in its efforts to track leaks to the Associated Press and Fox News.
With instances of alleged sexual assaults in the military drawing attention, Powell said military officials know they must get these kinds of problems under control.
The military justice system does work for such cases, he said. “I can tell you in my experience as a commander we take it very, very seriously,” he said.
On the large backlog of veterans’ claims, Powell said he has confidence that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is making headway dealing with that problem.
“General Shinseki has said he needs another couple of years to work on the backlog,” Powell said. “I have confidence that he will get it done.”
Powell was interviewed in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, where the names of 58,286 Americans died in that war are inscribed in black granite. Powell, who served in that conflict, said that one lesson of that war is the need to have a “a clear understanding” of political objectives and of enemy motivation before committing U.S. forces.
Powell, a Republican who endorsed Obama in 2008 and in 2012, said that the president “has done reasonably well” at start of second term. Powell said he hopes Obama succeeds in efforts with Congress to revise immigration laws.
The economy is improving, though steps to deal with the nation’s budget deficit require action, he said.
“We have got to fix our fiscal situation and our economy if we’re going to be able to do anything else in the world,” Powell said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com