President Barack Obama’s Counterterrorism Speech Nails it on Drone Strikes

President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech Thursday did not deliver any radical policy changes or huge revelations, but it was well done nonetheless. It explained his reasoning behind the use of certain techniques of warfare including drone strikes and Guantanamo detentions, even as he also promised to minimize the use of these methods in the future and try to move towards a world in which the 2001 authorization for war against al Qaeda and affiliates would no longer be needed. It was an intelligent blend of the tone of his more idealistic speeches, such as the Cairo address of June 2009, with his more muscular messages like the December 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

But one section of his speech is worth particular focus – the use of armed unmanned combat vehicles or drones. Even though President Obama did not specify exactly how drone strikes would change in the future, and did not provide a great deal of new information about them, the modest amount of detail he did provide was welcome. That is because U.S. drone strikes are badly misunderstood around the world, a point underscored by a New York Times op-ed today contained the following statements:

“…the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.”

Such statements are incorrect and inflammatory, causing problems for example in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Indeed, even so-called “signature strikes” have typically been conducted only after a great deal of surveillance of a given site, very robust establishment of the fact that such a site is an enemy headquarters or related facility, and considerable care in ensuring that noncombatants are not present (and as Obama said, Congress is “briefed on every strike that America takes”).

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