In an unprecedented defence of one of the U.S.' most secretive and controversial counterterrorism tools, a top Obama administration official has described drone strikes as legal, ethical and wise.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said that the President had instructed his administration to be more open with the American people about the use of remotely piloted aircraft to carry out targeted strikes against perceived terrorists.

Drone strikes that the U.S. is alleged to be carrying out on Pakistani soil in the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan are a sore point in U.S.-Pakistan relations and seen as a factor driving anti-American sentiment in the region.

Seeking to address misperceptions about the process underlying the U.S. use of lethal force via drones, Mr. Brennan in his remarks during a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars addressed several points of defence of drone strikes in order.

First, he argued, drone strikes were legal because the U.S. constitution empowered the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack.

In particular the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that the U.S. Congress passed after the September 11 attacks authorised the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those nations, organisations and individuals responsible for 9/11.

While he did not directly refer to drone strikes in Pakistan, Mr. Brennan said, “There is nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qaeda to Afghanistan,” adding later, “if another nation cannot or will not take action, we will”.

Second, Mr. Brennan dismissed the notion that drone strikes were unethical, on the grounds that the U.S. was involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and individual members of the group were “legitimate military targets”.

He made a strong pitch for the argument that unlike massive ordinance attacks, drone strikes met the exacting conditions of “distinction”, “proportionality” and “humanity” in their ability to limit collateral damage in terms of the deaths of innocent civilians to a minimum.

“It's this surgical precision — the ability, with laserlike focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it — that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential,” Mr. Brennan said.

Third, Mr. Brennan argued that drone strikes were a “wise” option for the U.S., principally because they fulfilled numerous strategic and tactical objectives in the fight against al-Qaeda and its associates.

For example, the drones' ability to cover vast swathes of treacherous terrain, strike their targets with “astonishing precision”, and then return to base dramatically reduced the danger to U.S. personnel and allowed them to capitalise on windows of opportunity that were only momentarily open.

Again without mentioning Pakistan, Mr. Brennan said the U.S. sought to dispel the “mistaken belief among some foreign publics” that the U.S. might engage in drone strikes “casually”. However, he acknowledged that, “We – as a government – along with our foreign partners, can and must do a better job” of addressing such concerns.

Mr. Brennan went to lengths to then describe the extensive review process that any individual name proposed for a drone strike would be subject to.

Specifically a potential target would have to be considered significant threat to U.S. interests. “We do not engage in lethal action in order to eliminate every single member of al-Qaeda in the world,” Mr. Brennan noted.

Second, he said that the U.S.' “unqualified preference” was to undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible.

Third, Mr. Brennan noted that the U.S. was “mindful that there are important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories,” emphasising that “International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints.”

Underscoring the U.S. commitments to this vetting process, for potential drone strike targets he explained that there were “numerous occasions” where, after careful review, the U.S. had concluded that the use of lethal force was not justified.

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