NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In the first formal acknowledgement of what's been an open secret up till now, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan publicly stated yesterday that the United States conducts drone strikes targeted on al-Qaida. In a speech that also described the state of al-Qaida a year after the death of Osama bin Laden, Brennan opened many doors on drone strikes. He did not say where exactly, how many - more than 250, by independent estimates since President Obama took office - or how many people they've killed - estimated at around 2,000, including hundreds of noncombatants.
He did address four issues at the center of the debate over the strikes: ethics, wisdom, the standards use for approval. And he began with legality. We'll play a substantial excerpt from the speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan cited both domestic law and the Constitution, which he says give the president powers to protect the nation from the imminent threat of attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JOHN BRENNAN: As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense. 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, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.
Second, targeted strikes are ethical. Without question, the ability to target a specific individual from hundreds or thousands of miles away raises profound questions. Here, I think it is useful to consider such strikes against the basic principles of the law of war that govern the use of force.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement that the target have definite military value. In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. We have the authority to target them with lethal force, just as we target enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as Germans and Japanese commanders during World War II.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective, while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. By targeting an individual terrorist or a small number of terrorists with ordnance that can be adapted to avoid harming others in the immediate vicinity, it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.
For the same reason, targeted strikes conform to the principle of humanity, which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering. For all these reasons, I suggest to you that these targeted strikes against al-Qaida terrorists are indeed ethical and just.
Of course, even if a tool is legal and ethical, that doesn't necessarily make it appropriate or advisable in a given circumstance. This brings me to my next point.
Targeted strikes are wise. Remotely piloted aircraft, in particular, can be a wise choice because of geography, with their ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision and then return to base. They can be a wise choice because of time, when windows of opportunity can close quickly and there just may be only minutes to act.
They can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to US personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether. Yet they are also a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordinance that can cause injury and death far beyond their intended target.
In addition, compared against other options, a pilot operating the aircraft remotely, with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance, might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians. It's this surgical precision - the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist, while limiting damage to the tissue around it. That makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.
There's another reason that targeted strikes can be a wise choice - the strategic consequences that inevitably come with the use of force. As we have seen, deploying large armies abroad won't always be our best offense. Countries typically don't want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns. In fact, large, intrusive military deployments risk playing into al-Qaida's strategy of trying to draw us into long, costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment and inspire the next generation of terrorists. In comparison, there is the precision of targeted strikes.
I acknowledge that we as a government, along with our foreign partners, can and must do a better job of addressing the mistaken belief among some foreign publics that we engage in these strikes casually, as if we are simply unwilling to expose U.S. forces to the dangers faced every day by people in those regions. For as I'll describe today, there is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al-Qaida terrorist and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.
Still, there is no more consequential a decision than deciding whether to use lethal force against another human being, even a terrorist dedicated to killing American citizens. So in order to ensure that our counterterrorism operations involving the use of lethal force are legal, ethical and wise, President Obama has demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards and processes.
This reflects his approach to broader questions regarding the use of force. In his speech in Oslo, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the president said that all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. And he added: Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conflict. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard-bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.
The United States is the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict. Other nations also possess this technology, and many more nations are seeking it, and more will succeed in acquiring it. President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of those nations that's - and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.
If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly. If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards for their use, then we must do so as well. We cannot expect of others what we will not do ourselves. President Obama has therefore demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards, that at every step, we be as thorough and deliberate as possible.
This leads me to the final point I want to discuss today, the rigorous standards and processes of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes against a specific member of al-Qaida outside the hot battlefield of Afghanistan. What I hope to do is to give you a general sense, in broad terms, of the high bar we require ourselves to meet when making these profound decisions today. That includes not only whether a specific member of al-Qaida can legally be pursued with lethal force, but also whether he should be.
Over time, we've worked to refine, clarify and strengthen this process and our standards, and we continue to do so. If our counterterrorism professionals assess, for example, that a suspected member of al-Qaida poses such a threat to the United States to warrant lethal action, they may raise that individual's name for consideration. The proposal will go through a careful review and as appropriate will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for a decision.
First and foremost, the individual must be a legitimate target under the law. Earlier, I described how the use of force against members of al-Qaida is authorized under both international and U.S. law, including both the inherent right of national self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which courts have held extends to those who are part of al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces. If after a legal review, we determine that the individual is not a lawful target, end of discussion. We are a nation of laws, and we will always act within the bounds of the law.
Of course, the law only establishes the outer limits of the authority in which counterterrorism professionals can operate. Even if we determine that it is lawful to pursue the terrorist in question with lethal force, it doesn't necessarily mean we should. There are, after all, literally thousands of individuals who are part of al-Qaida, the Taliban or associated forces - thousands upon thousands. Even if it were possible, going after every single one of these individuals with lethal force would neither be wise nor an effective use of our intelligence and counterterrorism resources.
As a result, we have to be strategic. Even if it is lawful to pursue a specific member of al-Qaida, we ask ourselves whether that individual's activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will in fact enhance our security.
For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action. We do not engage in legal action in order to eliminate every single member of al-Qaida in the world. Most times, and as we have done for more than a decade, we rely on cooperation with other countries that are also interested in removing these terrorists with their own capabilities and within their own laws. Nor is lethal action about punishing terrorists for past crimes. We are not seeking vengeance, rather we conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and save American lives.
And what do we mean when we say significant threat? I am not referring to some hypothetical threat, the mere possibility that a member of al-Qaida might try to attack us at some point in the future. A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al-Qaida or one of its associated forces. Or perhaps the individual is himself an operative, in the midst of actually training for, or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. persons and interests. Or perhaps the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack. The purpose of a strike against a particular individual is to stop him before he can carry out his attack and kill innocents. The purpose is to disrupt his plans and his plots before they come to fruition.
In addition, our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible. I have heard it suggested that the Obama administration somehow prefers killing al-Qaida members rather than capturing them. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is our preference to capture suspected terrorists whenever and wherever feasible.
For one reason, this allows us to gather valuable intelligence that we might not be able to obtain any other way. In fact, the members of al-Qaida that we or other nations have captured have been one of our greatest sources of information about al-Qaida, its plans and its intentions. And once in U.S. custody, we often can prosecute them in our federal courts or reformed military commissions, both of which are used for gathering intelligence and preventing future terrorist attacks. You see our preference for capture in the case of Ahmed Warsame, a member of al-Shabab who had significant ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Last year, when we learned that he would be traveling from Yemen to Somalia, U.S. forces captured him in route, and we subsequently charged him in federal court.
The reality, however, is that since 2001, such unilateral captures by U.S. forces outside of hot battlefields like Afghanistan have been exceedingly rare. This is due in part to the fact that in many parts of the world our counterterrorism partners have been able to capture or kill dangerous individuals themselves.
Moreover, after being subjected to more than a decade of relentless pressure, al-Qaida's ranks have dwindled and scattered. These terrorists are skilled at seeking remote, inhospitable terrain, places where the United States and our partners simply do not have the ability to arrest or capture them. At other times, our forces might have the ability to attempt capture, but only by putting the lives of our personnel at too great a risk. Oftentimes, attempting capture could subject civilians to unacceptable risks. There are many reasons why capture might not be feasible, in which case lethal force might be the only remaining option to address the threat, prevent an attack and save lives.
Finally, when considering lethal force, we are, of course, mindful that there are important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories. We do not use force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints. The United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law.
CONAN: White House counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, speaking yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The latest U.S. drone strike in Pakistan followed a vote by the country's parliament two weeks ago that denounced U.S. drone strikes there as a violation of sovereignty.
Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be here, along with guest host Jennifer Ludden, and 10 things you'll never hear in a college commencement speech. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.