On April 30, John Brennan, chief counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, formally recognized the existence of US drone strikes. In a speech before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Brennan defended the program as “ethical and just.” Brennan also argued that the United States government has the authority to use drone strikes on suspected members of al-Qaeda:
In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaeda 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.
But unlike Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, al-Qaeda and its “associated forces” do not wear uniforms or fight for any particular government. In addition, as Tom Parker observes for Amnesty International, “in World War II the United States and its allies recognized the neutrality of non-combatant states.”
In a non-international armed conflict like [the "war on terror"], the only “enemies” targetable are those “directly participating in hostilities” against the United States, or performing a “continuous combat function” with armed groups targeting the U.S.
Not every member of Al Qaeda or “associated forces” meets that criteria. A cook, dishwasher or doctor aiding Al Qaeda fighters may well be a “member” of Al Qaeda—yet not be lawfully targetable. Brennan, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, ignored that fact.
In addition, Brennan for the first time publicly acknowledged that drone strikes have killed civilians. But he declared these deaths have been “exceedingly rare.”
However, according to analysis by the New America Foundation, approximately 11 to 17 percent of all those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan have been civilians. Meanwhile, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that since President Obama took office in January 2009, anywhere from 282-535 civilians have been killed by drone strikes, including more than 60 children.
Furthermore, as David Ignatius notes in the Washington Post, these strikes could set a dangerous precedent:
What if Iran used them against Kurdish separatists they regard as terrorists? What if Russia used them over Chechnya? What position would the United States take, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if it opposed drone attacks by other nations that face “imminent” or “significant” threats?