International Security Studies
The Efficacy and Ethics of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy
Transcript of Remarks by John O. Brennan
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
“The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy”
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Wilson Center, and a special welcome to our chairman of the board Joe Gildenhorn and his wife Alma, who are very active on the Wilson -- who is very active on the Wilson council. This afternoon’s conversation is, as I see it, a great tribute to the kind of work we do here. We care intensely about having our most important policymakers here, and in getting objective accounts of what the United States government and other governments around the world are doing. On September 10th, 2001, I had lunch with L. Paul Bremer. Jerry Bremer, as he is known, had chaired the congressionally chartered Commission on Terrorism on which I served.
It was one of three task forces to predict a major terror attack on U.S. soil. At that lunch, we lamented that no one was taking our report seriously. The next day, the world changed. In my capacity as a senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, I was headed to the U.S. Capitol at 9:00 a.m. on 9/11 when an urgent call from my staff turned me around. To remind, most think that the Capitol, in which the intelligence committee offices were then located was the intended target of the fourth hijacked plane. Congress shut down. A terrible move, I thought, and 250 or so members mingled on the Capitol lawn, obvious targets if that plane had arrived. I frantically tried to reach my youngest child, then at a D.C. high school, but the cell towers were down.
I don’t know where John Brennan was that day, but I do know that the arch of our lives came together after that when he served as deputy executive director of the CIA, when I became the ranking member on the House intelligence committee, when he became the first director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, an organization that was set up by then-President Bush 43, when I was the principle author of legislation which became the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, a statute which we organized our intelligence community for the first time since 1947, and renamed TTIC, the organization that John had headed, the National Counter Terrorism Center, when he served as the first director of the NCTC, when I chaired the intelligence subcommittee of the homeland security committee, when he moved into the White House as deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism, and assistant to the president, and when I succeeded Lee Hamilton here at the Wilson Center last year.
Finally, when he became President Obama’s point person on counterterrorism strategy, and when the Wilson Center commenced a series of programs which as still ongoing, the first of which we held on 9/12/2011 to ask what the next 10 years should look like, and whether this country needs a clearer legal framework around domestic intelligence.
Clearly, the success story of the past decade is last May’s takedown of Osama bin Laden. At the center of that effort were the senior security leadership of our country. I noticed Denis McDonough in the audience, right here in the front row, and certainly it included President Obama and John Brennan. They made the tough calls.
But I also know, and we all know, how selfless and extraordinary were the actions of unnamed intelligence officials and Navy SEALs. The operation depended on their remarkable skills and personal courage. They performed the mission. The Wilson Center is honored to welcome John Brennan here today on the eve of this first anniversary of the bin Laden raid. President Obama will headline events tomorrow, but today we get an advance peek from the insider’s insider, one of President Obama’s most influential aides with a broad portfolio to manage counterterrorism strategy in far-flung places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Activities in this space, as I mentioned, at the Wilson Center are ongoing, as are terror threats against our country.
I often say we won’t defeat those threats by military might alone, we must win the argument. No doubt our speaker today agrees that security and liberty are not a zero sum game. We either get more of both, or less. As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” So, as we welcome John Brennan, I also want to congratulate him and President Obama for nominating the full complement of members to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, another part of the 2004 intelligence reform law, and a key part of assuring that America’s counterterrorism efforts also protect our constitution and our values. At the end of today’s event, we would appreciate it if everyone would please remain seated, while Mr. Brennan departs the building. Thank you for coming, please welcome John Brennan.
Thank you so much Jane for the very kind introduction, and that very nice and memorable walk down memory lane as our paths did cross so many times over the years, but thank you also for your leadership of the Wilson Center. It is a privilege for me to be here today, and to speak at this group. And you have spent many years in public service, and it continues here at the Wilson Center today, and there are few individuals in this country who can match the range of Jane’s expertise from the armed services to intelligence to homeland security, and anyone who has appeared before her committee knew firsthand just how extensive and deep that expertise was. So Jane, I’ll just say that I’m finally glad to be sharing the stage with you instead of testifying before you. It’s a privilege to be next to you. So to you and everyone here at the Woodrow Wilson Center, thank you for your invaluable contributions, your research, your scholarship, which help further our national security every day.
I very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, in particular its ethics and its efficacy.
It is fitting that we have this discussion here today at the Woodrow Wilson Center. It was here in August of 2007 that then-Senator Obama described how he would bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end and refocus our efforts on “the war that has to be won,” the war against al-Qaeda, particularly in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He said that we would carry on this fight while upholding the laws and our values, and that we would work with allies and partners whenever possible. But he also made it clear that he would not hesitate to use military force against terrorists who pose a direct threat to America. And he said that if he had actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, including in Pakistan, he would act to protect the American people.
So it is especially fitting that we have this discussion here today. One year ago today, President Obama was then facing the scenario that he discussed here at the Woodrow Wilson Center five years ago, and he did not hesitate to act. Soon thereafter, our special operations forces were moving toward the compound in Pakistan where we believed Osama bin Laden might be hiding. By the end of the next day, President Obama could confirm that justice had finally been delivered to the terrorist responsible for the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and for so many other deaths around the world.
The death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaeda. Credit for that success belongs to the courageous forces who carried out that mission, at extraordinary risk to their lives; to the many intelligence professionals who pieced together the clues that led to bin Laden’s hideout; and to President Obama, who gave the order to go in.
Now one year later, it’s appropriate to assess where we stand in this fight. We’ve always been clear that the end of bin Laden would neither mark the end of al-Qaida, nor our resolve to destroy it. So along with allies and partners, we have been unrelenting. And when we assess that al-Qaida of 2012, I think it is fair to say that, as a result of our efforts, the United States is more secure and the American people are safer. Here’s why.
In Pakistan, al-Qaida’s leadership ranks have continued to suffer heavy losses. This includes Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qaida’s top operational planners, killed a month after bin Laden. It includes Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed when he succeeded Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s deputy leader. It includes Younis al-Mauritani, a planner of attacks against the United States and Europe, until he was captured by Pakistani forces.
With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al-Qaida has had trouble replacing them. This is one of the many conclusions we have been able to draw from documents seized at bin Laden’s compound, some of which will be published online, for the first time, this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. For example, bin Laden worried about, and I quote, “The rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.”
Al-Qaida leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates. Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives. They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al-Qaida is losing badly. And bin Laden knew it at the time of his death. In documents we seized, he confessed to “disaster after disaster.” He even urged his leaders to flee the tribal regions, and go to places, “away from aircraft photography and bombardment.”
For all these reasons, it is harder than ever for al-Qaida core in Pakistan to plan and execute large-scale, potentially catastrophic attacks against our homeland. Today, it is increasingly clear that compared to 9/11, the core al-Qaida leadership is a shadow of its former self. Al-Qaida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives, and with continued pressure is on the path to its destruction. And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant.
Nevertheless, the dangerous threat from al-Qaida has not disappeared. As the al-Qaida core falters, it continues to look to affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause. Yet these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well. In Somalia, it is indeed worrying to witness al-Qaida’s merger with al-Shabaab, whose ranks include foreign fighters, some with U.S. passports. At the same time, al-Shabaab continues to focus primarily on launching regional attacks, and ultimately, this is a merger between two organizations in decline.
In Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, continues to feel the effects of the death last year of Anwar al-Awlaki, its leader of external operations who was responsible for planning and directing terrorist attacks against the United States. Nevertheless, AQAP continues to be al-Qaida’s most active affiliate, and it continues to seek the opportunity to strike our homeland. We therefore continue to support the government of Yemen in its efforts against AQAP, which is being forced to fight for the territory it needs to plan attacks beyond Yemen. In north and west Africa, another al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, continues its efforts to destabilize regional governments and engages in kidnapping of Western citizens for ransom activities designed to fund its terrorist agenda. And in Nigeria, we are monitoring closely the emergence of Boko Haram, a group that appears to be aligning itself with al-Qaida’s violent agenda and is increasingly looking to attack Western interests in Nigeria, in addition to Nigerian government targets.
More broadly, al-Qaida’s killing of innocents, mostly Muslim men, women and children, has badly tarnished its image and appeal in the eyes of Muslims around the world.
Thank you. More broadly, al-Qaida’s killing of innocents, mostly men women and children, has badly tarnished its appeal and image in the eyes of Muslims around the world. Even bin Laden and his lieutenants knew this. His propagandist, Adam Gadahn, admitted that they were now seen “as a group that does not hesitate to take people’s money by falsehood, detonating mosques, and spilling the blood of scores of people.” Bin Laden agreed that “a large portion” of Muslims around the world “have lost their trust” in al-Qaida.
So damaged is al-Qaida’s image that bin Laden even considered changing its name. And one of the reasons? As bin Laden said himself, U.S. officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims.” Simply calling them al-Qaida, bin Laden said, “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.”
To which I would add, that is because al-Qaida does not belong to Muslims. Al-Qaida is the antithesis of the peace, tolerance, and humanity that is the hallmark of Islam.
Despite the great progress we’ve made against al-Qaida, it would be a mistake to believe this threat has passed. Al-Qaida and its associated forces still have the intent to attack the United States. And we have seen lone individuals, including American citizens, often inspired by al-Qaida’s murderous ideology, kill innocent Americans and seek to do us harm.
Still, the damage that has been inflicted on the leadership core in Pakistan, combined with how al-Qaida has alienated itself from so much of the world, allows us to look forward. Indeed, if the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaida’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise. This progress is no accident.
It is a direct result of intense efforts made over more than a decade, across two administrations, across the U.S. government and in concert with allies and partners. This includes the comprehensive counterterrorism strategy being directed by President Obama, a strategy guided by the President’s highest responsibility, to protect the safety and the security of the American people. In this fight, we are harnessing every element of American power: intelligence, military, diplomatic, development, economic, financial, law enforcement, homeland security, and the power of our values, including our commitment to the rule of law. That’s why, for instance, in his first days in office, President Obama banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which are not needed to keep our country safe. Staying true to our values as a nation also includes upholding the transparency upon which our democracy depends.
A few months after taking office, the president travelled to the National Archives where he discussed how national security requires a delicate balance between secrecy and transparency. He pledged to share as much information as possible with the American people “so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.” He has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible as well.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Holder discussed how our counterterrorism efforts are rooted in, and are strengthened by, adherence to the law, including the legal authorities that allow us to pursue members of al-Qaida, including U.S. citizens, and to do so using technologically advanced weapons.
In addition, Jeh Johnson, the general counsel at the Department of Defense, has addressed the legal basis for our military efforts against al-Qaida. Stephen Preston, the general counsel at the CIA, has discussed how the agency operates under U.S. law.
These speeches build on a lecture two years ago by Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, who noted that “U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war.”
Given these efforts, I venture to say that the United States government has never been so open regarding its counterterrorism policies and their legal justification. Still, there continues to be considerable public and legal debate surrounding these technologies and how they are sometimes used in the fight against al-Qaida.
Now, I want to be very clear. In the course of the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida, I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies, for example, to prevent attacks on U.S. forces and to remove terrorists from the battlefield. We do, and it has saved the lives of our men and women in uniform. What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is a different practice, beyond hot battlefields like Afghanistan, identifying specific members of al-Qaida and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. And this is what I want to focus on today.
Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the administration of George W. Bush and now a professor at Harvard Law School, captured the situation well. He wrote:
“The government needs a way to credibly convey to the public that its decisions about who is being targeted, especially when the target is a U.S. citizen, are sound. First, the government can and should tell us more about the process by which it reaches its high-value targeting decisions. The more the government tells us about the eyeballs on the issue and the robustness of the process, the more credible will be its claims about the accuracy of its factual determinations and the soundness of its legal ones. All of this information can be disclosed in some form without endangering critical intelligence.”
Well, President Obama agrees. And that is why I am here today.
I stand here as someone who has been involved with our nation’s security for more than 30 years. I have a profound appreciation for the truly remarkable capabilities of our counterterrorism professionals, and our relationships with other nations, and we must never compromise them. I will not discuss the sensitive details of any specific operation today. I will not, nor will I ever, publicly divulge sensitive intelligence sources and methods. For when that happens, our national security is endangered and lives can be lost. At the same time, we reject the notion that any discussion of these matters is to step onto a slippery slope that inevitably endangers our national security. Too often, that fear can become an excuse for saying nothing at all, which creates a void that is then filled with myths and falsehoods. That, in turn, can erode our credibility with the American people and with foreign partners, and it can undermine the public’s understanding and support for our efforts. In contrast, President Obama believes that done carefully, deliberately and responsibly we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security.
So let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.
Broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of al-Qaida has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved. With the remainder of my time today, I would like to address each of these in turn.
First, these targeted strikes are legal. Attorney General Holder, Harold Koh, and Jeh Johnson have all addressed this question at length. To briefly recap, as a matter of domestic law, the Constitution empowers the president to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, the AUMF, passed by Congress after the September 11th attacks authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate forces” against those nations, organizations, and individuals responsible for 9/11. There is nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qaida to Afghanistan.
As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense. There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.
Second, targeted strikes are ethical. Without question, the ability to target a specific individual, from hundreds or thousands of miles away, raises profound questions. Here, I think it’s useful to consider such strikes against the basic principles of the law of war that govern the use of force.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement that the target have definite military value. In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida 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.
Targeted strikes conform to the principles of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.
Targeted strikes conform to the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. By targeting an individual terrorist or small numbers of terrorists with ordnance that can be adapted to avoid harming others in the immediate vicinity, it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.
For the same reason, targeted strikes conform to the principle of humanity which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering. For all these reasons, I suggest to you that these targeted strikes against al-Qaida terrorists are indeed ethical and just.
Of course, even if a tool is legal and ethical, that doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate or advisable in a given circumstance. This brings me to my next point.
Targeted strikes are wise. Remotely piloted aircraft in particular can be a wise choice because of geography, with their ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision, and then return to base. They can be a wise choice because of time, when windows of opportunity can close quickly and there just may be only minutes to act.
They can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether. Yet they are also a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordnance that can cause injury and death far beyond their intended target.
In addition, compared against other options, a pilot operating this aircraft remotely, with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance, might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians. It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.
There’s another reason that targeted strikes can be a wise choice, the strategic consequences that inevitably come with the use of force. As we’ve seen, deploying large armies abroad won’t always be our best offense.
Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns. In fact, large, intrusive military deployments risk playing into al-Qaida’s strategy of trying to draw us into long, costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment, and inspire the next generation of terrorists. In comparison, there is the precision of targeted strikes.
I acknowledge that we, as a government, along with our foreign partners, can and must do a better job of addressing the mistaken belief among some foreign publics that we engage in these strikes casually, as if we are simply unwilling to expose U.S forces to the dangers faced every day by people in those regions. For, as I’ll describe today, there is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al-Qaida terrorist, and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.
Still, there is no more consequential a decision than deciding whether to use lethal force against another human being, even a terrorist dedicated to killing American citizens. So in order to ensure that our counterterrorism operations involving the use of lethal force are legal, ethical, and wise, President Obama has demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards and processes.
This reflects his approach to broader questions regarding the use of force. In his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the president said that “all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” And he added:
“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.”
The United States is the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict. Other nations also possess this technology, and any more nations are seeking it, and more will succeed in acquiring it. President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of those nations may -- and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.
If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly. If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards for their use, then we must do so as well. We cannot expect of others what we will not do ourselves. President Obama has therefore demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards, that, at every step, we be as thorough and as deliberate as possible.
This leads me to the final point I want to discuss today, the rigorous standards and process of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes against a specific member of al-Qaida outside the hot battlefield of Afghanistan. What I hope to do is to give you a general sense, in broad terms, of the high bar we require ourselves to meet when making these profound decisions today. That includes not only whether a specific member of al-Qaida can legally be pursued with lethal force, but also whether he should be.
Over time, we’ve worked to refine, clarify, and strengthen this process and our standards, and we continue to do so. If our counterterrorism professionals assess, for example, that a suspected member of al-Qaida poses such a threat to the United States to warrant lethal action, they may raise that individual’s name for consideration. The proposal will go through a careful review and, as appropriate, will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for a decision.
First and foremost, the individual must be a legitimate target under the law. Earlier, I described how the use of force against members of al-Qaida is authorized under both international and U.S. law, including both the inherent right of national self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which courts have held extends to those who are part of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces. If, after a legal review, we determine that the individual is not a lawful target, end of discussion. We are a nation of laws, and we will always act within the bounds of the law.
Of course, the law only establishes the outer limits of the authority in which counterterrorism professionals can operate. Even if we determine that it is lawful to pursue the terrorist in question with lethal force, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. There are, after all, literally thousands of individuals who are part of al-Qaida, the Taliban, or associated forces, thousands upon thousands. Even if it were possible, going after every single one of these individuals with lethal force would neither be wise nor an effective use of our intelligence and counterterrorism resources.
As a result, we have to be strategic. Even if it is lawful to pursue a specific member of al-Qaida, we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security.
For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action. We do not engage in legal action -- in lethal action in order to eliminate every single member of al-Qaida in the world. Most times, and as we have done for more than a decade, we rely on cooperation with other countries that are also interested in removing these terrorists with their own capabilities and within their own laws. Nor is lethal action about punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance. Rather, we conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat, to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and to save American lives.
And what do we mean when we say significant threat? I am not referring to some hypothetical threat, the mere possibility that a member of al-Qaida might try to attack us at some point in the future. A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al-Qaida or one of its associated forces. Or perhaps the individual is himself an operative, in the midst of actually training for or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. persons and interests. Or perhaps the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack. The purpose of a strike against a particular individual is to stop him before he can carry out his attack and kill innocents. The purpose is to disrupt his plans and his plots before they come to fruition.
In addition, our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible. I have heard it suggested that the Obama Administration somehow prefers killing al-Qaida members rather than capturing them. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is our preference to capture suspected terrorists whenever and wherever feasible.
For one reason, this allows us to gather valuable intelligence that we might not be able to obtain any other way. In fact, the members of al-Qaida that we or other nations have captured have been one of our greatest sources of information about al-Qaida, its plans, and its intentions. And once in U.S. custody, we often can prosecute them in our federal courts or reformed military commissions, both of which are used for gathering intelligence and preventing future terrorist attacks.
You see our preference for capture in the case of Ahmed Warsame, a member of al-Shabaab who had significant ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Last year, when we learned that he would be traveling from Yemen to Somalia, U.S. forces captured him in route and we subsequently charged him in federal court.
The reality, however, is that since 2001 such unilateral captures by U.S. forces outside of hot battlefields, like Afghanistan, have been exceedingly rare. This is due in part to the fact that in many parts of the world our counterterrorism partners have been able to capture or kill dangerous individuals themselves.
Moreover, after being subjected to more than a decade of relentless pressure, al-Qaida’s ranks have dwindled and scattered. These terrorists are skilled at seeking remote, inhospitable terrain, places where the United States and our partners simply do not have the ability to arrest or capture them. At other times, our forces might have the ability to attempt capture, but only by putting the lives of our personnel at too great a risk. Oftentimes, attempting capture could subject civilians to unacceptable risks. There are many reasons why capture might not be feasible, in which case lethal force might be the only remaining option to address the threat, prevent an attack, and save lives.
Finally, when considering lethal force we are of course mindful that there are important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories. We do not use force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints. The United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law.
Those are some of the questions we consider; the high standards we strive to meet. And in the end, we make a decision, we decide whether a particular member of al-Qaida warrants being pursued in this manner. Given the stakes involved and the consequences of our decision, we consider all the information available to us, carefully and responsibly.
We review the most up-to-date intelligence, drawing on the full range of our intelligence capabilities. And we do what sound intelligence demands, we challenge it, we question it, including any assumptions on which it might be based. If we want to know more, we may ask the intelligence community to go back and collect additional intelligence or refine its analysis so that a more informed decision can be made.
We listen to departments and agencies across our national security team. We don’t just hear out differing views, we ask for them and encourage them. We discuss. We debate. We disagree. We consider the advantages and disadvantages of taking action. We also carefully consider the costs of inaction and whether a decision not to carry out a strike could allow a terrorist attack to proceed and potentially kill scores of innocents.
Nor do we limit ourselves narrowly to counterterrorism considerations. We consider the broader strategic implications of any action, including what effect, if any, an action might have on our relationships with other countries. And we don’t simply make a decision and never revisit it again. Quite the opposite. Over time, we refresh the intelligence and continue to consider whether lethal force is still warranted.
In some cases, such as senior al-Qaida leaders who are directing and planning attacks against the United States, the individual clearly meets our standards for taking action. In other cases, individuals have not met our standards. Indeed, there have been numerous occasions where, after careful review, we have, working on a consensus basis, concluded that lethal force was not justified in a given case.
As President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, I feel that it is important for the American people to know that these efforts are overseen with extraordinary care and thoughtfulness. The president expects us to address all of the tough questions I have discussed today. Is capture really not feasible? Is this individual a significant threat to U.S. interests? Is this really the best option? Have we thought through the consequences, especially any unintended ones? Is this really going to help protect our country from further attacks? Is this going to save lives?
Our commitment to upholding the ethics and efficacy of this counterterrorism tool continues even after we decide to pursue a specific terrorist in this way. For example, we only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing. This is a very high bar. Of course, how we identify an individual naturally involves intelligence sources and methods, which I will not discuss. Suffice it to say, our intelligence community has multiple ways to determine, with a high degree of confidence, that the individual being targeted is indeed the al-Qaida terrorist we are seeking.
In addition, we only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances. The unprecedented advances we have made in technology provide us greater proximity to target for a longer period of time, and as a result allow us to better understand what is happening in real time on the ground in ways that were previously impossible. We can be much more discriminating and we can make more informed judgments about factors that might contribute to collateral damage.
I can tell you today that there have indeed been occasions when we decided against conducting a strike in order to avoid the injury or death of innocent civilians. This reflects our commitment to doing everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties, even if it means having to come back another day to take out that terrorist, as we have done previously. And I would note that these standards, for identifying a target and avoiding the loss of innocent -- the loss of lives of innocent civilians, exceed what is required as a matter of international law on a typical battlefield. That’s another example of the high standards to which we hold ourselves.
Our commitment to ensuring accuracy and effectiveness continues even after a strike. In the wake of a strike, we harness the full range of our intelligence capabilities to assess whether the mission in fact achieved its objective. We try to determine whether there was any collateral damage, including civilian deaths. There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect weapon, and remotely piloted aircraft are no exception.
As the president and others have acknowledged, there have indeed been instances when, despite the extraordinary precautions we take, civilians have been accidently killed or worse -- have been accidentally injured, or worse, killed in these strikes. It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened. When it does, it pains us, and we regret it deeply, as we do any time innocents are killed in war. And when it happens we take it very, very seriously. We go back and we review our actions. We examine our practices. And we constantly work to improve and refine our efforts so that we are doing everything in our power to prevent the loss of innocent life. This too is a reflection of our values as Americans.
Ensuring the ethics and efficacy of these strikes also includes regularly informing appropriate members of Congress and the committees who have oversight of our counterterrorism programs. Indeed, our counterterrorism programs, including the use of lethal force, have grown more effective over time because of congressional oversight and our ongoing dialogue with members and staff.
This is the seriousness, the extraordinary care, that President Obama and those of us on his national security team bring to this weightiest of questions: Whether to pursue lethal force against a terrorist who is plotting to attack our country.
When that person is a U.S. citizen, we ask ourselves additional questions. Attorney General Holder has already described the legal authorities that clearly allow us to use lethal force against an American citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida. He has discussed the thorough and careful review, including all relevant constitutional considerations, that is to be undertaken by the U.S. government when determining whether the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.
To recap, the standards and processes I’ve described today, which we have refined and strengthened over time, reflect our commitment to: ensuring the individual is a legitimate target under the law; determining whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests; determining that capture is not feasible; being mindful of the important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories; having that high degree of confidence, both in the identity of the target and that innocent civilians will not be harmed; and, of course, engaging in additional review if the al-Qaida terrorist is a U.S. citizen.
Going forward, we’ll continue to strengthen and refine these standards and processes. As we do, we’ll look to institutionalize our approach more formally so that the high standards we set for ourselves endure over time, including as an example for other nations that pursue these capabilities. As the president said in Oslo, in the conduct of war, America must be the standard bearer.
This includes our continuing commitment to greater transparency. With that in mind, I have made a sincere effort today to address some of the main questions that citizens and scholars have raised regarding the use of targeted lethal force against al-Qaida. I suspect there are those, perhaps some in this audience, who feel we have not been transparent enough. I suspect there are those, both inside and outside our government, who feel I have been perhaps too open. If both groups feel a little bit unsatisfied, then I probably struck the right balance today.
Again, there are some lines we simply will not and cannot cross because, at times, our national security demands secrecy. But we are a democracy. The people are sovereign. And our counterterrorism tools do not exist in a vacuum. They are stronger and more sustainable when the American people understand and support them. They are weaker and less sustainable when the American people do not. As a result of my remarks today, I hope the American people have a better understanding of this critical tool, why we use it, what we do, how carefully we use it, and why it is absolutely essential to protecting our country and our citizens.
I would just like to close on a personal note. I know that for many people in our government and across the country the issue of targeted strikes raised profound moral questions. It forces us to confront deeply held personal beliefs and our values as a nation. If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven’t struggled with this, then they haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain in counterterrorism.
But I am certain about one thing. We are at war. We are at war against a terrorist organization called al-Qaida that has brutally murdered thousands of Americans, men, women and children, as well as thousands of other innocent people around the world. In recent years, with the help of targeted strikes, we have turned al-Qaida into a shadow of what it once was. They are on the road to destruction.
Until that finally happens, however, there are still terrorists in hard-to-reach places who are actively planning attacks against us. If given the chance, they will gladly strike again and kill more of our citizens. And the president has a Constitutional and solemn obligation to do everything in his power to protect the safety and security of the American people.
Yes, war is hell. It is awful. It involves human beings killing other human beings, sometimes innocent civilians. That is why we despise war. That is why we want this war against al-Qaida to be over as soon as possible, and not a moment longer. And over time, as al-Qaida fades into history and as our partners grow stronger, I’d hope that the United States would have to rely less on lethal force to keep our country safe.
Until that happens, as President Obama said here five years ago, if another nation cannot or will not take action, we will. And it is an unfortunate fact that to save many innocent lives we are sometimes obliged to take lives, the lives of terrorists who seek to murder our fellow citizens.
On behalf of President Obama and his administration, I am here to say to the American people that we will continue to work to safeguard this nations -- this nation and its citizens responsibly, adhering to the laws of this land and staying true to the values that define us as Americans, and thank you very much.
Thank you, Mr. Brennan. As it is almost 1:00, I hope you can stay a few extra minutes to take questions, and I would just like to make a comment, ask you one question, and then turn over to our -- turn it over to our audience for questions. Please no statements. Ask questions. First your call for greater transparency is certainly appreciated by me. I think that the clearer we can make our policies, and the better we can explain them, and the more debate we can have in the public square about them, the more: one, they will be understood; and two, they will persuade the would-be suicide bomber about to strap on a vest that there is a better answer. We do have to win the argument in the end with the next generation, not just take out those who can’t be rehabilitated in this generation, and I see you nodding, so I know you agree and I’m not going to ask you a question about that. I also want to say how honored we are that you would make this important speech at the Wilson Center. There is new material here, for those who may have missed it. The fact that the U.S. conducts targeted strikes using drones has always been something that I, as a public official, danced around because I knew it had not been officially acknowledged by our government. I was one of those members of Congress briefed on this program, I have seen the feed that shows how we do these things, I’m not going to comment on specific operations or areas of the world, but I do think it is important that our government has acknowledged this, and set out, as carefully as possible, the reasons why we do it, and I want to commend you personally as well as Eric Holder, Jeh Johnson, and Harold Koh for carefully laying out the legal framework, and also add that at the Wilson Center, we will continue to debate these issues, and see what value we can add free from spin on a non-partisan basis to helping to articulate even more clearly the reasons why, as you said, war is hell, and why, as you said, there is no decision more consequential than deciding to use legal force, so thank you very much for making those remarks here.
My question is this: One thing I don’t think you mentioned in that enormously important address was the rise of Islamist parties, which have been elected in Tunisia, Egypt, and probably will be elected, and exist in Turkey and other countries. Do you think that having Islamist inside the tent, in a political sphere, also helps diminish the threat of outside groups like al-Qaida?
Well, hopefully political pluralism is breaking out in the Middle East, and we’re going to find in many countries the ability of various constituencies to find expression through political parties. And certainly, we are very strong advocates of using the political system, the laws, to be able to express the views of individual groups within different countries, and so rather than finding expression through violent extremism, these groups have the opportunity now, and since they’ve never had before in countries like Tunisia, and in Egypt, Yemen, other places, where they can in fact participate meaningfully in the political system. This is going to take some time for these systems to be able to mature sufficiently so that there can be a very robust and democratic system there, but certainly those individuals who are parties -- who are associated with parties that have a religious basis to them, they can find now the opportunity now to be able to participate in that political system.
My second and final question, and I see all of you with your hands about to be raised, and again, please just state a question as I’m about to do. You just mentioned Yemen, that has been part of your broader portfolio, I know you made many trips there, and you were a key architect of the deal to get Saleh to agree to -- the 40 year autocrat ruler -- to agree to accept immunity, leave the country, and then to be replaced by an elected leader, in this case, his vice president in a restructured government. Do you think a Yemen-type solution could work in Syria? Do you think there’s any possibility of getting the Bashar family out of Syria and structuring a new government there, and perhaps in having the -- Russia lead the effort to do that, because of its close ties to Syria, and the fact that it is still unfortunately arming and supporting the Syrian regime?
Well, each of these countries in the Middle East are facing different types of circumstances, and they have unique histories. Yemen was fortunate that they do -- did have a degree of political pluralism there, Ali Abdullah Saleh in fact allowed certain political institutions to develop, and we were very fortunate to have a peaceful transition from the previous regime to the government of President Hadi now. Certainly, there needs to be some way found for progress in Syria. It’s outrageous what’s happening in that country, the continued death of Syrian citizens at the hands of a brutal authoritarian government. This is something that needs to stop, and the international community has come together on it, so I’d like to be able to see something that would be able to transition peacefully, but the sooner it can be done, obviously, the more lives we’ve saved.
Thank you very much. Please identify yourselves, and ask a question only. The woman straight ahead of me, yes. Just wait for the mic.
Hi, my name is Tara McKelvy, I’m a scholar here, and I’m a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and you talked a little bit about the struggle that you have in this process of the targeted strikes, and General Cartwright talked to me about the question of surrender, that’s not really an option when you use a Predator drone, for instance. I’m wondering if you can talk about which kinds of issues that you found most troubling when you think about these strikes.
Well, as I said, one of the considerations that we go through is the feasibility of capture. We would prefer to get these individuals so that they can be captured. Working with local governments, what we like to be able to do is provide them the intelligence that they can get the individuals, so it doesn’t have to be U.S. forces that are going on the ground in certain areas. But if it’s not feasible, either because it’s too risky from the standpoint of forces or the government doesn’t have the will or the ability to do it, then we make a determination whether or not the significance of the threat that the person poses requires us to take action, so that we’re able to mitigate the threat that they pose. I mean, these are individuals that could be involved in a very active plot, and if it is allowed to continue, you know, it could result in attacks either in Yemen against the U.S. embassy, or here in the homeland that could kill, you know, dozens if not hundreds of people. So what we always want to do, though, is look at whether or not there is an option to get this person and bring them to justice somehow for intelligence collection purposes, as well as to try them for their crimes.
Thank you, man in the green shirt right here.
Robert Baum from the Wilson Center and the University of Missouri. Thank you for your comments. I did want to ask about one area where we seem to be less successful, the events in Mali and Nigeria seem to suggest that we’ve been less successful in containing al-Qaida, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your efforts in West Africa and also urge you to emphasize the importance of economic development as a way of -- the strategic development of economic development in combating the terrorism. Thank you.
You raised two important points. One is what are we doing in terms of confronting the terrorist threat that emanates in places like Mali and Nigeria, and other areas, and then what we need to do further upstream as far as the type of development assistance, and assistance to these countries, so they can build the institutions that are going to be able to address the needs of the people. Nigeria’s a particularly dangerous situation right now with Boko Haram that has the links with al-Qaida, but also has links with al-Shabaab, as well AQIM. It has this radical offshoot, Ansaru, that really is focused on U.S. or Western interests, and so there is a domestic challenge that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, and as we well know, there’s the north-south struggle within Nigeria, and tensions between the Christian-Muslim communities. So we are trying to work with the Nigerian government as well as other governments are, as well, to try to give them the capabilities they need to confront the terrorist threat, but then also the issue is the building up those political institutions within Nigeria so that they can deal with this, not just from a law enforcement or internal security perspective, but also to address those needs that are fueling some of these fires of violent extremism.
Mali, you know, because of the recent coup, we’ve been trying to work across the Sahel with Mali, and Niger, and Mauritania, and other countries to address the growing phenomenon and threat of al-Qaida Islamic Maghreb that is a unique organization because it has a criminal aspect to it. You know, it kidnaps these individuals for large ransoms. We’re outraged whenever, you know, countries or organizations pay these huge sums to al-Qaida, whether it be in the Sahel or in Yemen because it just is able to feed their activities, but Mali right now, with the coup, and then you have the Tuareg rebellion up in the north, and then that area that basically is such a large expansive territory, that also, you know, requires both a balancing of addressing the near-term threats that are posed by al-Qaida, but also trying to give the government in Mali, in Bamako, the ability to build up those institutions, address the development needs, they have the different sort of ethnic and tribal rivalries that are there, so it’s a complicated area. I’ve worked very closely with the -- talking with my French and British colleagues as well as with others in the region, about how there might be some way to address some of these broader African issues that manifest themselves, unfortunately, in the kidnappings, and the piracy, and the criminal activities, and terrorist attacks, so there’s an operational cadence in Africa now that is concerning in a number of parts of the continent.
Back there, middle, yeah.
I can take another 10 minutes [inaudible].
Hi there, Leanne Erdberg [spelled phonetically] from the State Department. How can we ensure that executive interagency actors, when they are undertaking counterterrorism actions, are held to appropriate standards, and processes as we ask them to act as prosecutors, judges, and juries, and how we can ensure that intelligence is held to the same standards and processes that evidence is?
Okay, well as I tried to say in my remarks, we’re not carrying out these actions to retaliate for past transgressions. We are not a court, we’re not trying to determine guilt or innocence, and then carry out a strike in retaliation. What we’re trying to do is prevent the loss of lives through terrorist attacks, so it’s not as though we’re, you know, sort of judge and jury on, again, their involvement in past activities. We see a threat developing, we follow it very carefully, we identify the individuals who are responsible for allowing that plot and that plan to go forward, and then we make a determination about whether or not we have the solid intelligence base, and that’s why I tried to say in my remarks, we have standards. You know, the intelligence is brought forward, we evaluate that, there’s interagency meetings that a number of us are involved in on a ongoing basis, scrutinizing that intelligence, determining whether or not we have a degree of confidence that that person is indeed involved in carrying out this plan to kill Americans. If it reaches that level, then what we do is we look at it according to the other standards that I talked about in terms of infeasibility of capture, determination that we are able to have the intelligence that will give us, you know, a high degree of confidence that, you know, we can track an individual and find them, and be confident that we’re taking action against an individual who really is involved in carrying out an attack. You know, if we -- if we didn’t have to take these actions, and we still had -- and we had confidence that there wasn’t going to be a terrorist attack, I think everybody would be very, very pleased. We only decide to take that action if there is no other option available, if there is not the option of capture, if the local government will not take action, if we cannot do something that will prevent that attack from taking place, and the only available option is taking that individual off of the battlefield, and we’re going to do it in a way that gives us the confidence that we are not going to, in fact, inflict collateral damage. So again, it really is a very rigorous system of standards and processes that we go through.
Thank you. In the far back. Yes, you.
Sir, I was wondering if you could tell us --
Identify yourself, please.
Oh, sorry, Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun. It’s a Japanese paper. I was wondering if you could tell me how many times or what percentage of the time have proposals to target a specific individual been denied, and also if you could address the issue of signature strikes, which I guess aren’t necessarily targeted against specific individuals, but people who are engaging in suspicious activities. Could you comment on what the criteria is for targeting them? Thank you.
Well, I’m not going to go into sort of how many times, what proportion of instances there have been sort of either approvals or declinations of these recommendations that come forward, but I can just tell you that there have been a -- numerous times where individuals that were put forward for consideration for this type of action was declined. You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved. Everything we do, though, that is carried out against al-Qaida is carried out consistent with the rule of law, the authorization on the use of military force, and domestic law. And we do it with a similar rigor, and there are various ways that we can make sure that we are taking the actions that we need to prevent a terrorist attack. That’s the whole purpose of whatever action we use, the tool we use, it’s to prevent attack, and to save lives. And so I spoke today, for the first time openly, about, again, what’s commonly referred to in the press as drones, remotely piloted aircraft, that can give you that type of laser-like precision that can excise that terrorist or that threat in a manner that, again, with the medical metaphor, that will not damage the surrounding tissue, and so what we’re really trying to do -- al-Qaida’s a cancer throughout the world, it has metastasized in so many different places, and when that metastasized tumor becomes lethal and malignant, that’s when we’re going to take the action that we need to.
Last question will be the woman in the back at the edge.
Sorry. What about in a country like Pakistan --
Could you identify yourself please.
Homai Emdah [spelled phonetically], Express News. Mr. Brennan, what about in a country like Pakistan where drone strikes are frequently carried out, and the Pakistani government has, over the last few months, repeatedly protested to the U.S. government about an end to drone strikes, which is also the subject of discussion between Ambassador Grossman when he was in Islamabad. You mentioned that countries can be incapable or unwilling to carry out -- to arrest militants, so how do you deal with a country like Pakistan which doesn’t accept drone strikes officially?
We have an ongoing dialogue with many countries throughout the world on counterterrorism programs, and some of those countries we are involved in very detailed discussions about the appropriate tools to bring to bear. In the case of Pakistan, as you pointed out, Ambassador Grossman was there just very recently. There are ongoing discussions with the government of Pakistan about how best to address the terrorist threat that emanates from that area, and I will point out, that, you know, so many Pakistanis have been killed by that malignant tumor that is within the sovereign borders of Pakistan. It’s -- and many, many brave Pakistanis have given their lives against these terrorist and militant organizations. And so, as the parliament recently said in its resolution, that Pakistan needs to rid itself of this -- these foreign militants and these foreign terrorists that have taken root inside of Pakistan. So we are committed to working very closely on an ongoing basis with the Pakistani government which includes, you know, the various components, intelligence, security, and various civilian departments and agencies in order to help them address the terrorist threat, but also so that they can help us make sure that Pakistan and that area near Afghanistan is never, ever again used as a launching pad for attacks here in the United States.
Thank you. Let me just conclude by saying that former CIA director Mike Hayden used to use the analogy of a football field, the lines on the football field, and he talked about our intelligence operatives and others as the players on the field, and he said, “We need them to get chalk on their cleats.” Go up right up to the line in carrying out what are approved policies of the United States, and if you think about it that way, it is really important to have policies that are transparent, so that those who are carrying out the mission and those in the United States, and those around the world who are trying to understand the mission, know where the lines are. If we don’t know where the lines are, some people will be risk-averse, other will commit excesses, and we’ve certainly seen a few of those, Abu Ghraib comes to mind, over recent years which are black eyes on our country. And so I just want to applaud the fact that John Brennan has come over here from the White House, spent over an hour with us laying out in great detail what the rules are for something that has been revealed today, which is the use of drones in certain operations, targeted operations. The debate will continue, no question, people in this audience and listening in have different points of view, we certainly know that one young woman did during his remarks, but that’s why the Wilson Center’s here. To offer a platform free of spin and partisan rhetoric to debate these issues thoroughly, and you honored us by coming here today, Mr. Brennan, thank you very much.
Thank you very much Jane, thank you.
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