This past week the United States Department of Justice released a sixteen-page memo defending the Obama Administration’s targeting of Al Qaeda operatives through drone strikes. The memo more specifically defended President Obama’s position that it is acceptable to target U.S. citizens working with Al Qaeda. Elements of this debate played out in the U.S. Senate as John Brennan, the President’s nominee to become Director of the C.I.A., testified during his confirmation hearings. Senators were restricted against asking questions regarding the Justice Department’s legal memo since the majority of the memo is still classified. Senators on both sides grilled Mr. Brennan on his involvement with drone strikes against both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Mr. Brennan is considered to be the architect of the President’s drone programme and a committed defender of the programme.
The debate over drones has escalated during the Obama Administration since the President has used it repeatedly as America’s first line of defence against Al Qaeda. The White House, through Mr. Brennan and Press Secretary Jay Carney, argues that it is much safer to take out suspected operatives than to deploy troops on the ground and apprehend potential terrorists. Since January of 2009, over 350 drone strikes have been carried out across the Middle East. According to the Financial Times, during the Bush Administration about 50 drone strikes were conducted. The use of drone strikes emphasizes the Obama Administration’s apprehension to putting troops on the ground in the Arabian Peninsula or Pakistan, where a significant number of these strikes have been carried out.
Mr. Brennan’s defence of the programme sheds light into the legal defence that is highlighted in the Justice Department memos. “The people are being held hostage to al-Qaeda in these areas . . . and have welcomed the work to rid them of the al-Qaeda cancer in their midst,” Mr. Brennan argued during his hearings. This part of his testimony was strongly attacked by many senators suggesting the he was highly naïve to believe that local populations welcomed drones. Mr. Brennan continued to say that governments across the Middle East appreciate the work that the U.S. is doing through its drone programme and they remain committed to supporting America’s mission in the region. Mr. Brennan’s testimony and the Obama Administration’s defence memos are contrary to what many politicians and experts on the region have said. Former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal has said that “drones are hated on a visceral level.” Supporting this claim is the fact that Pakistan’s Parliament last year voted unanimously to make a formal demand to the U.S. that drone strikes end.
The Obama Administration has spent a significant amount of time this week working to defend President Obama’s drone policies. It is not likely that the programme will end anytime soon, but the publishing of part of this memo suggest that President Obama is working be more transparent in explaining the process for selecting targets and carrying out drone operations.
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