U.S. Drone Strikes Are Ethical, Obama Adviser Says

White House counter terrorism adviser John Brennan said drone strikes are legal and ethical against al-Qaeda forces, which he described as “legitimate military targets” in armed conflict against the U.S.

Marking the anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan, Brennan said the strikes are used only in cases of a “significant threat.”

“There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield,” Brennan said at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death a year ago this week, Brennan said al-Qaeda has been weakened, describing the core leadership as “a shadow of its former self.” Bin Laden organized the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington in which almost 3,000 people were killed.

“Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win,” Brennan said. “In short, al-Qaeda is losing, badly. And bin Laden knew it.”

Bin Laden’s Documents

Some of the documents seized Navy SEALs at the bin Laden compound will be made public online this week by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he said. In one, Brennan said, bin Laden expressed concern about “the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.”

Brennan made the rounds of yesterday’s news talk shows, saying al Qaeda’s terrorism capabilities have been degraded while acknowledging the persistence of affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Brennan also said the U.S. doesn’t see any active plot by al-Qaeda timed for the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.

President Barack Obama today denied that his administration is seeking political advantage from the anniversary of bin Laden’s death, saying Americans “rightly remember” what the nation accomplished with the raid on the al-Qaeda leader’s Pakistan compound.

“I hardly think that you’ve seen any excessive celebration taking place,” Obama said in response to a question at a White House news conference.

Campaign Video

Obama is campaigning on the killing of bin Laden as a chief foreign policy accomplishment as he seeks re-election this year. His campaign released a video on April 27 that used Republican Mitt Romney’s past statements to question whether Romney would have ordered the bin Laden operation if he had been president.

A seven-minute video released today by the Obama campaign includes a section that replays Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death, with a narrator describing “the victory no one saw coming.”

Romney today said he “of course” would have given the go-ahead for the raid.

U.S. officials say that threats persist from al-Qaeda offshoots, as well as from individuals motivated by extremist ideology. The regional affiliates, such as Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “will remain committed to the group’s ideology and, in terms of threats to U.S. interests, will surpass the remnants” of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in January.

Drone Strikes

The U.S. has been using drone strikes to go after terrorism targets, including the killing last year of U.S.-born al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The U.S. is still seeking other al-Qaeda officials including Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader after bin Laden’s death, who may be hiding in Pakistan. Drone strikes have continued despite protests from Pakistan’s government.

Behind the scenes, the operation was a long time in planning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in unscripted remarks during an April 10 address. A small group of Obama’s military and civilian advisers tried to game out every possible scenario. “What if, what if, what if?” Clinton recalled.

On the moonless night of the raid, the president and his advisers crammed into the small room in a “secret area in the basement” of the White House, where they had real-time communications with the Navy SEAL team.

Nobody Breathed

“I’m not sure anyone breathed for 35, 37 minutes, and for me the worst part was when one of the helicopters” struck a wall, Clinton said.

None of the officials had slept “for a long time,” said Clinton, who wasn’t even aware photographs were being taken of the assembled policy makers. “You were just so concentrating on what you could see and you could hear,” she said.

When the SEALs entered the house and the real-time communications link cut off, “everybody was particularly focused on trying to keep calm, be prepared as to what would happen,” Clinton said.

Then, word came that ‘Geronimo’ -- bin Laden’s code name -- had been killed. After visual identification and two DNA tests, she said, “finally everybody was comfortable with concluding that yes, you know, he was there, we did get him, they were sure of it.”

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