Obama Says Drone Strike Program Raises Legal, Moral Complexities

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President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia walk to Marine One prior to departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on April 7, 2016.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
  • President says no `Iron Man' to call on as substitute
  • Early control by spy agencies meant transparency lacking

President Barack Obama said he and his advisers “anguish” over civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes while defending the program as a necessary component of the country’s defense.

In response to a question from a student at the University of Chicago Law School, the president said the drone program was initially developed through intelligence services and that meant it wasn’t subject to the same sort of debate as a military operation might get. He also said the legal structures for the program were “underdeveloped” in the early part of his term, and that did a “disservice” to those who were operating the system.

“Part of my job as president is to figure out how I can keep Americans safe, doing the least damage possible in really tough, bad situations,” Obama said Thursday. “There are folks out there who are genuinely trying to kill us and would be happy to blow up this entire room without any compunction and are actively trying to find ways to do it.”

Obama spent 12 minutes talking drone-strike policy in response to a student who questioned the president’s constitutional authority to authorize such strikes, highlighting the fact that American citizens have been killed in some of them.

Obama said drone strikes are vetted at the highest levels of government, and require a level of “near-certainty” that civilians would not be killed. Despite that, the uncertainty of war leads to unintended consequences, he said. The president said that the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Pakistan also killed civilians.

“I wish I could just send in Iron Man,” he said at the law school, where he was speaking in support of his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. “I don’t mean that as a joke.”

Obama, who inherited the drone program from his predecessor, has used it with increased frequency.

In the past month, U.S. airstrikes have killed scores of suspected terrorist fighters in Libya, Somalia and Yemen, according to the Defense Department. The strike in Somalia killed 150 fighters at a camp for the al-Shabaab terrorist group, the Pentagon said last month.

The president said he is pushing for increased transparency for the drone program, including new systems that will allow U.S. citizens to determine whether drone strikes abide by established legal parameters.

“As much as possible this should be done through our Defense Department so we can report here’s what we did, here’s why we did it,” he said. “Slowly we are pushing it in that direction.”

Obama said he hopes that by the time he leaves office, there is a more institutionalized system for approving, evaluating and reporting on drone strikes “on an annualized basis.”

One turning point for the programs was a January 2015 incident in which two hostages -- an American and an Italian -- were killed in a drone strike on an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. That led Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to call for the end of Central Intelligence Agency control over U.S. drone strikes and the White House to initiate a review of U.S. drone policy.

Obama in his remarks Thursday said U.S. decisions about drones were not as centralized as they perhaps should have been as the technology rapidly emerged and military and intelligence leaders were eager to use it. Obama had previously sought to shift control over the drone program from the CIA to the Department of Defense.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, counts as many as 965 civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Of the 423 strikes, 372 occurred during the Obama administration, the group says.

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