Hostage Deaths Call U.S. Drone Program Into Question

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The unintended deaths of two hostages in a U.S. drone strike has reignited the debate over the tactic. President Obama said the program would be reviewed though it's not clear what that means.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The unintended deaths of two aid workers are raising questions about when and whether the U.S. should be killing its enemies by remote control. The workers - an American and an Italian - were killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this year in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As NPR's David Welna reports, for a second day President Obama found himself speaking about those deaths.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In an appearance this afternoon before employees at the Director of National Intelligence, President Obama said the drone program that killed the two hostages is forcing a reassessment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, we're going to review what happened. We're going to identify the lessons that can be learned and any improvements and changes that can be made.

WELNA: But at the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was defending the drone program. Earnest insisted such remotely controlled air attacks had diminished al-Qaida's ability to carry out attacks against the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: We know that these kinds of operations have made al-Qaida leaders intensely focused on their own personal security. And when these leaders are so focused on their own personal security, they're devoting less time and attention to plotting and planning against the United States. So this kind of pressure has been effective in enhancing the national security of the United States.

WELNA: Earnest added that drone strikes are planned for parts of the world where it's not possible to have U.S. boots on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EARNEST: Absolute certainty is just not possible in that environment. What is possible and what's the highest standard we can set is near certainty.

JAMES LEWIS: The consequences of an erroneous strike are incredibly damaging.

WELNA: That's James Lewis, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lewis, who worked for the Pentagon during the war in Iraq, says airstrikes gone bad not only hurt the United States's reputation abroad, they also can garner support among locals for insurgencies.

LEWIS: I think you could make a case, yeah, we've done a good job targeting, but it's not a perfect job, and that's where it gets tricky. And there's some cases where we will not, for any time in the future, be able to tell who is inside the building. And in those cases, maybe you'd want to say maybe I should not pull the trigger.

WELNA: What's been lacking, says Gawker national security editor William Arkin, is a national debate about whether drones really increase national security.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Maybe this incident will be the straw that breaks the camel's back in terms of our beginning to have a real debate over not what went wrong in this particular incident, but what's right and wrong about drone killing overall.

WELNA: Arkin is the author of a new book titled "Unmanned: Drones, Data, And The Illusion Of Perfect Warfare." He says American authorities have bestowed upon themselves rationales for drone strikes that don't always hold up.

ARKIN: It really is shocking to the sensibilities of those who approve those strikes because there is a sense that the precision and the sweetness, as they call it, of the intelligence information actually is equivalent to the legal justification for doing it.

WELNA: The White House is promising not one but two investigations into the air strike that killed the aid workers and another that killed two Americans who joined al-Qaida. But Press Secretary Earnest would not say how soon those probes will be concluded nor when their results might be made public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EARNEST: At this point, I wouldn't even be in a position to promise that we would have an extended public discussion of those reviews given the sensitive nature of what they were viewing.

WELNA: No plans have been announced either to alter or suspend the drone program. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.