Question: So one issue that Judge Garland
would likely never be able to consider if he were confirmed concerns the President’s
authority to conduct drone strikes away from active battlefields. And these are strikes
that you have continuously authorized on the basis of vague legal standards that you unilaterally
deem to be satisfied in each case without ever appearing before a court, and in the
process killing hundreds of innocent civilians as well as, in some cases, American citizens.
So my question is, how are these killings morally and legally justified? And what kind
of message does this drone program send about America’s values to the world, the American
people, and to law students like myself who refuse to put our trust in an opaque process? THE PRESIDENT: I think that’s a great question
— although I will say that I will dispute some of the underlying premises that you asserted
as facts. But I think it’s an important topic, and it’s a fair one. When I came into office, we were still in
the midst of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the border regions between Afghanistan
and Pakistan, al Qaida was still highly active. And drone technologies began to develop in
parallel with — had developed prior to my presidency, but started to really accelerate
in terms of the technology and the precision with which strikes could be taken. And the challenge for me as Commander-in-Chief
has consistently been how do you think about this new technology in a way that is consistent
with morality, ideals, laws of war, but is also consistent with my first priority as
President and Commander-in-Chief, which is to keep all of you safe, including you. And so I think it’s fair to say that in
the first couple of years of my presidency, the architecture — legal architecture, administrative
architecture, command structures — around how these were utilized was underdeveloped
relative to how fast the technology was moving. So another way of saying this is our military
or our intelligence teams started seeing this as really effective. And they started just
going because the goal was let’s get al Qaeda, let’s get these leaders. There’s
a training camp here. There’s a high-value target there. Let’s move. And it was — the
decision-making was not ad hoc, but it was embedded in decisions that are made all the
time about a commander leading a military operation, or an intelligence team trying
to take out a terrorist. And there wasn’t enough of an overarching structure, right? So you may recall — but if not, I’m sure
we can send it to you — I gave a speech at the National Defense University in which
I said that we have to create an architecture for this because the potential for abuse — given
the remoteness of these weapons and their lethality, we’ve got to come up with a structure
that governs how we’re approaching it. And that’s what we’ve done. So I’ve put
forward what’s called a presidential directive. It’s basically a set of administrative guidelines
whereby these weapons are being used. Now, we actually did put forward a non-classified
version of what those directives look like. And it says that you can’t use these weapons
unless you have near certainty that there will not be civilian casualties; that you
have near certainty that the targets you are hitting are, in fact, terrorist organizations
that are intending to do imminent harm to the United States. And you’ve got all the
agencies who are involved in that process, they have to get together and approve that.
And it goes to the highest, most senior levels of our government in order for us to make
those decisions. And what I’ve also said that we need to
start creating a process whereby this — whereby public accountability is introduced so that
you or citizens or members of Congress outside of the Intelligence Committee can look at
the facts and see whether or not we’re abiding by what we say are these norms. And we’re actually — there’s a lot of
legal aspects to this because part of the problem here is, is that this drone program
initially came through the intelligence side under classified programs, as opposed to the
military. Part of what I’ve also said is I don’t want our intelligence agencies being
a paramilitary organization. That’s not their function. As much as possible this should
be done through our Defense Department so that we can report, here’s what we did,
here’s why we did it, here’s our assessment of what happened. And so slowly we are pushing it in that direction.
My hope is, is that by the time I leave office there is not only an internal structure in
place that governs these standards that we’ve set, but there is also an institutionalized
process whereby the actions that the U.S. government takes through drone technology
are consistently reported on, on an annualized basis so that people can look. And the reason this is really important to
me — and this was implied in your question — is there is a lot of misinformation about
this. There is no doubt — and I said this in an interview I think recently — there
is no doubt that some innocent people have been killed by drone strikes. It is not true
that it has been this sort of willy-nilly, let’s bomb a village. That is not how folks
have operated. And what I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties
in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur
in conventional war. So the irony — let’s take an example like
the bin Laden raid. This was as precise, as effective an operation that I don’t think
anybody would dispute was in the national security interests of the United States. And
we put our best people in there who operate as precisely and as effectively as any group
of individuals probably ever have in the history of the planet. And they executed their mission
flawlessly. But there were a number of people who were killed in that who you might describe
as not the targets of the mission — members of bin Laden’s family, for example. Now,
that would be counted as a civilian casualty under the standards from which you drew your
information. And if you calculated it as a percent, there was actually a pretty high
civilian casualty rate for this extraordinarily precise mission. Now, imagine during the height of the Iraq
war, or when we were still actively fighting in Afghanistan, the number of civilians who
were killed in normal military operations. We talk about the number of U.S. troops that
were killed in Iraq. The number of Iraqis that were killed — primarily by AQI and
those we were fighting, but also by U.S. military that was trying to be as careful as possible
in chaotic situations, like Fallujah or Ramadi — were in the tens of thousands. So part of my job as President is to figure
out how I can keep America safe doing the least damage possible in really tough, bad
situations. And I don’t have the luxury of just not doing anything and then being
able to stand back and feel as if my conscience is completely clear. I have to make decisions
because there are folks out there who are genuinely trying to kill us and would be happy
to blow up this entire room without any compunction, and are actively trying to find ways to do
it. And I wish I could just send in Iron Man — (laughter)
— no, no, I don’t mean that as a joke. I just mean I wish that the tragedy of war,
conflict, terrorism, et cetera, did not end up creating circumstances where we, wielding
kinetic power, don’t end up hurting anybody who shouldn’t have been hurt. But what I try to do is to set up the system
as best as I can. And I think it is very important for those who are critics of the U.S. government
— and this includes folks on the outside — to examine the incredible progress that
we’ve made over the course of a couple of decades. Because this conversation didn’t
even exist, it did not even cross the minds of people in the White House as recently as
30 or 40 years ago. I mean, it wasn’t even a factor. And we anguish over this in a very
serious way. But what I do think is a legitimate concern
is, is that the transparency issues. I think that the way that this got built up through
our intelligence and what’s called our Title 50 programs
meant that it did not — it wasn’t subject
to the same amount of democratic debate as when we are conducting what are called Title
10 Department of Defense conventional operations. And that’s done a disservice not only to
the public being able to examine where we made mistakes and create corrective action,
it’s actually also done a disservice to the incredibly dedicated men and women in
intelligence and in operations who perform these operations who are subject to accusations
that somehow they’re irresponsible and bloodless and going around blowing up children, which
is not the case. And our popular media I think has been able
to just project a whole bunch of scenarios that are generally not accurate. I guess I should stop there. (Laughter.) But
thank you for the question. It was a legitimate one.