White House says attacks against terrorist groups are "precise" and "lawful"

Even before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had the chance to broach the subject of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas with U.S. President Barack Obama, Washington appeared to push back on any notion that it would scale back its targeted assassination programme in the region.

At the daily White House briefing Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week that drone attacks against terrorist groups were “precise”, “lawful” and “effective” and before each strike was undertaken there would be “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured… which is the highest standard we or any country could set”.

Mr. Carney’s remarks, which were also echoed by the State Department spokesperson on Tuesday, come close on the heels of remarks by Mr. Sharif that he would be raising the question of drone strikes with Mr. Obama at their meeting in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon.

The remarks also come just days after a slew of reports by human rights organisations and United Nations Special Rapporteurs highlighted the civilian death toll of drone attacks and argued that such killings were in some cases tantamount to “extrajudicial executions or war crimes”.

In particular, a sharply-critical study by Amnesty International based on witness accounts, including from families of drone strike victims, said the circumstances of these killings were “disputed”, and claims by the Obama administration that individual assassinations based on “reliable intelligence, are extremely accurate”, did not appear convincing in the face of evidence.

However, U.S. officials continued to emphasise that the drone programme was deployed mainly in cases where the capture of members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, or other alternatives, proved impossible.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said to media here that reflecting her “big boss’s words from May… our preference is always to capture terrorists”. In this context she cited the recent case of the U.S. capture of Anas al-Liby, an al-Qaeda associate wanted in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Mr. Carney further underscored the “legality” of the tactic, saying: “We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with U.S. values and U.S. policy.”

However during a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace earlier Mr. Sharif indicated that he would raise this question with Mr. Obama, saying, “I would stress the need for an end to drone attacks.”