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Updated: February 1, 2012 10:51 IST

Obama openly defends drone use

Mark Landler
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A recent protest in Multan against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas.
Photo: AFP A recent protest in Multan against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas.

President Barack Obama on Monday defended the use of drones to strike suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere, saying the clandestine programme was “kept on a very tight leash” and enabled the United States to use “pinpoint” targeting to avoid more intrusive military action.

Mr. Obama, in an unusually candid public discussion of the Central Intelligence Agency's covert programme, said the drone strikes had not inflicted huge civilian casualties. “We are very careful in terms of how it's been applied,” he said. “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”

The President made the remarks in answer to questions posed by people during a live Web interview sponsored by Google Plus, the social media site of Google. He also spoke about the economy, laughed at a comedian's impersonation of him, and declined a woman's request to sing or do a dance.

The subject of drones came up when a viewer asked Mr. Obama about a report in The New York Times on Monday about the State Department's use of drones for surveillance purposes to protect its diplomatic installations in Iraq. Mr. Obama confirmed their use for surveillance, but said he thought the article was “a little overwritten”. He added that drones were a key part of the country's offensive against al-Qaeda.

The CIA's drone programme, unlike the use of armed unmanned aircraft by the military in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq, is a covert programme, traditionally one of the government's most carefully-guarded secrets. But because of intense public interest — the explosions cannot be hidden entirely — U.S. officials have been willing to discuss the programme on the condition of anonymity.

Until Monday, Mr. Obama, who has overseen a dramatic expansion of the use of drones in Pakistan and on a smaller scale in Yemen and Somalia, had spoken only indirectly about the programme. For example, after a CIA drone strike in September killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born al-Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, Mr. Obama never mentioned the agency, its unmanned aircraft or the missiles they fired.

Instead, speaking at a Virginia military base, he said Awlaki “was killed” in what he said was “a tribute to our intelligence community”.

The secrecy has prevented an open debate on legal and ethical questions surrounding the strikes, since neither intelligence officials nor members of Congress can speak openly about them. — New York Times News Service

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