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US Drone Strikes Examined

Aired February 7, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Americans like drones, but much of the world hates them. In the United States, a vast majority -- 75 percent in the latest polling -- like the idea that a clean shot from an unmanned flying machine can take out the world's bad guys.

But on the ground, on the receiving end of drone attacks, there is rage and significant evidence that drones have also killed and injured civilians, a point which has been downplayed by the U.S. government.

In Pakistan and in Yemen, anger at drone attacks is boiling over. In Washington today, the secretive U.S. policy is getting its first official public airing, as Congress starts confirmation hearings for John Brennan. He is the man nominated by President Obama to be the next CIA director and he's also the principal architect of America's drone policy.

It was Brennan also who first publicly admitted the existence of the drone program in a speech two years ago.


JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. COUNTERTERRORISM CHIEF: 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 Qaeda 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.


AMANPOUR: That speech was, in fact, last April and much remains secret still, things like kill lists, targets including American citizens that the president has said to personally sign off on. Three Americans have been killed by drones.

Two of them, Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, are the son and grandson of Nasser al-Awlaki, who's suing the U.S. government as he told me back in December.


NASSER AL-AWLAKI, FATHER AND GRANDFATHER OF DRONE STRIKE VICTIMS: What I want -- I am not looking for compensation; I am not looking for money. What I am looking is justice from the U.S. court system because I feel my son and my grandson, Abdulrahman, were killed for no reason.


AMANPOUR: So will the Brennan hearings be an accountability moment? Leading the charge in that direction is a Democratic senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who's laid out some fundamental questions.


SEN. RON WYDEN (D), ORE.: Every American has the right to know when their government believes it's allowed to kill them. I don't think that, as one person said, that is too much to ask. And this idea that security and liberty are mutually exclusive, that you can have only one or the other, is something I reject.


AMANPOUR: So I'll put Senator Wyden's questions to two experts, Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA official, who approves of U.S. drone policy, and Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is the organization that's taken up al-Awlaki's case against the United States.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Now a classified Justice Department memo has just been given to the Congress. And this is the memo that lays out according to the Justice Department the legal framework for the drone policy and the targeted strikes against even American citizens.

I first want to turn to you, Mr. Warren, because your client is Nasser al-Awlaki, whose son, the American, Anwar al-Awlaki, was the one who was killed, and this memo has been the framework for that killing.

Yemeni, but American citizen. What is the status of their suit against the U.S. government?

VINCE WARREN, EXEC. DIR., CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: The current case is now in the place where the -- where they -- we have just replied to the government's motion to dismiss our case, the former CIA officials, the people that we've sued, have applied to the court to dismiss our case, essentially claiming that the court doesn't have the ability to hear the legal justification for the targeted killing case. We filed the motion to reply to that and the government is going to reply shortly.

AMANPOUR: Now the White House shortly after al-Awlaki was killed, which was back in 2011, said the following: they said, according to the spokesman, that the strikes are legal, ethical and wise, and that they're covered by law, which the Congress approved in going after Al Qaeda.

This is what Jay Carney said under questioning by CNN's Jake Tapper right after the killing of al-Awlaki.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And why I wouldn't know of any credible terrorist expert who would dispute the fact that he was a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that he was operationally involved in terrorist attacks against American interests and citizens.

QUESTION: You said that you (inaudible).

CARNEY: Yes. But again --

QUESTION: Is there going to be any evidence presented?

CARNEY: You know, I don't have anything for you on that.


AMANPOUR: So no proof presented. What are you going to do to continue this case? And do you think you have even a shot of continuing this case in the U.S. court system?

WARREN: Well, it's interesting that Jay Carney said at that time that he didn't have anything for us on the evidence. And guess what? Even though this case is moving forward, the government still has not presented any evidence moving forward.

Where we are in the case is that we are really deeply trying to get the courts into the business of looking at the constitutionality and the legality of this program. That's what courts do. And we're going to continue to do that, even as the Justice Department and the Obama government resists that.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Lowenthal, let me turn to you. Basically, the memo that we're talking about, that lays out this legal framework, says that there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations, the ones that we've laid out, the ones that Mr. Warren has just talked about.

Do you think there should be more evidence provided by the administration, more clarity, more transparency in a situation as heated as this one?

MARK LOWENTHAL, FORMER CIA ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: I don't think the government has a responsibility to specifically say who's on a kill list. I think the government has actually come fairly a long way in the last couple of days in laying out the legal basis for the program, how the program is reviewed, how decisions are made.

If the courts want to rule on that, that's certainly the prerogative of the courts. But I think the Obama administration has really made a lot of movement in trying to allow transparency into the mechanism of the program.

And I think that's appropriate. I certainly think it's appropriate for the senators to be asking John Brennan how the program is managed. It's not clear to me that those questions have to be answered in an open session.

AMANPOUR: Now you say, in fact, we'll see whether those questions are going to be answered in an open session. It's underway, sort of as we speak. You say that a kill list should not be made public. OK. But what about after there has been a killing and people are asking for the evidence? I mean, this is a nation of laws, of personal protections, of legislative oversight, unlike many countries in the world.

Does it not trouble you that a basic question about proof of killing an American citizen has not been laid out?

LOWENTHAL: Well, I think we have to make a distinction here between the drone program, most of whose targets have not been Americans, have been terrorists or people supporting terrorism and the specific case of al- Awlaki, who was an American citizen but who had put himself in a position where he had declared war on the United States and was urging fellow terrorists to kill Americans.

His broadcasts alone, in my view -- and I'm not a lawyer. I'm an intelligence officer -- but his broadcasts alone, in my view, have put him in a position where he posed a threat to the United States. And under the terms of the resolutions passed in the aftermath of 9/11, the president, I believe, did the right thing in having him targeted and having him killed.

AMANPOUR: Let me put that question to you, Mr. Warren. You are a lawyer and you're the family's lawyer. That's true. He was somebody who declared war on the United States.

WARREN: Well, the legal definitions in terms of how the government can act to actually kill its own citizens, it requires more than just talking points from Jay Carney. It requires more than just the CliffsNotes version of a confidential memo.

And frankly, even if we were all to agree that what Anwar al-Awlaki was problematic and troublesome, our position is certainly that that alone does not give the government the ability to target someone for assassination and kill them without any process whatsoever.

On top of that, we're really left to only trust the government, trust us that we've got the right people on the list, trust us that we're using the right methodologies, trust us that we've got the framework, and we'll keep ourselves in check.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you both a series of questions.

To you, Mr. Lowenthal, I want to put to you a series of questions that came from Senator Wyden in his attachment to the president and to the White House, asking for them to give him more answers to these questions of an opaque policy.

For instance, the first one, how much evidence does the president need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed? That's not clear, Mr. Lowenthal. How much evidence, do you think? I mean, how do we make that decision?

LOWENTHAL: Let me make a sort of odd distinction. The intelligence community does not deal in evidence. The intelligence community is not a court of law. The intelligence community deals in intelligence.

And if there's a preponderance of intelligence that would describe an individual who appears to pose an imminent threat -- and there's a long discussion in the memo as to what imminence means, and you could probably debate this back and forth -- then that is probably sufficient in my understanding for somebody to be put on the kill list.

But we can't think of this as a judicial process. We're at war. This is about fighting with enemy combatants. Enemy combatants are not given a judicial process and then decide are we going to kill them. And I think we have to stop thinking, we have to operate legally within the war. But we are talking about killing enemy combatants, not legal proceedings.

AMANPOUR: Right. So extrajudicial, you've said -- and we've talked also about this issue now of imminent threat. That is one of the hotly debated aspects of this memo.

LOWENTHAL: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Because it seems to define imminent threat in the broadest possible terms and troublingly, because I think you know the definition of imminent, I know the definition of imminent.

It basically says that the United States does not even -- is not even required to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons or interests will take place in the immediate future. I mean, that's a totally, you know, unusual definition of the word imminent.

Does that trouble you?


LOWENTHAL: (Inaudible) -- that's an admittedly very broad definition. But here's the problem. If you're going to wait until the terrorists are in the execution phase, there's a much greater chance that you're going -- they're going to slip through.

Terrorism, from what we understand and the way they operate, they have a very long planning phase and a very short execution phase. If you look at the chronology of the 9/11 terrorists, that's they way they worked. So once you are on to the likelihood of planning an activity, in terms of safeguarding the majority of American lives then, yes, you're going to act.

And I think the memo makes an interesting point that weighing the rights of one person against the rights of many people who might be harmed in an attack is an exquisite kind of ruling. But that's what we pay people -- elected officials to do.

WARREN: I think, you know, just to touch on that -- on that point, Mark, first of all, imminence is deeply, deeply important here, because what the memo says in the beginning is that there's three criteria that, in order to target U.S. citizens outside of the zone of war, one is -- got a senior level official will -- could declare that that case is imminent. Two is that they will be --


LOWENTHAL: (Inaudible).

WARREN: Thank you. The second one is that they can't be captured and the third one that will comply within the rule of law.

But with respect to the imminence, when you read further in the memo, it doesn't even require that the U.S. government official know of a plot. It doesn't require that they know of any plan. And it doesn't require any evidence. And so imminence, according to that memo, is widely divergent from the imminence that we all know, even in the dictionary.

AMANPOUR: But it also doesn't even say who is that senior official who makes this decision. That's odd as well.

Let me put you this, which you just raised, Mr. Warren, about capture.

Does the president -- this is another question from Senator Wyden -- does the president have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?

WARREN: The question about surrender is an interesting one. More importantly is that the government has to be able to show not just in terms of its own internal working, but with respect to the three branches of government that put restrictions on the president, that they cannot capture this person.

So it's less about providing an opportunity to turn somebody in, but it's more about a reasonable and assured assessment that this is a last resort which is killing.

And we have no sense whatsoever from what the government has told us that they're using drones as a last resort as opposed to using it as the easiest way to kill.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Lowenthal?

LOWENTHAL: Well, I think if you look at -- I think the way the senator put the question is somewhat laughable, with all due respect to the senator. In the case of al-Awlaki, he's living in a remote sector of Yemen, where even the Yemeni government basically has no authority. He's broadcasting; he's sending messages over the Internet.

The odds of this man, who has purposely left the United States, to wage war on the United States, the idea of his surrendering, as we say, please come in or we're going to kill you, just strikes me as implausible.

And then, again, we're back into this issue, is he planning an active operation? We have to remember, in the case of al-Awlaki, he apparently had something to do with the attempt of Abdulmutallab to bring down the Northwest airliner in Detroit. So he was actively planning against the United States.

So I think he would meet most of the criteria, despite the fact that, yes, he was an American citizen. But you know, the odds are, the idea that we're going to say, please come in or we'll kill you and then people are going to therefore surrender, it strikes me as implausible. You have to ask yourself where are they, can we get to them, can we bring them in safely or not?

AMANPOUR: All right. And we'll continue this, because you gentlemen are going to stay with me. We'll continue this right after a break. And when we come back, the slippery slope. Where does this unchecked authority end? And could it backfire against the very fight the United States is trying to win? We'll get to that. But first, a look at the increasing daily use of drones.

These two nocturnal hunters are using a drone to bag wild boar in a rice field. And this scientist uses a drone to survey the seal and sea lion population in California's Channel Islands. And what could be more Southern California than a real estate agent using a drone? You can see it in the upper right-hand corner, to create cool videos to market his properties. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And we continue our conversation on drones and targeted killing, which a newly released Obama administration memo justifies.

Here with me are Mark Lowenthal, former CIA official, and Vince Warren, whose organization is representing Nasser al-Awlaki, the father and grandfather of two drone victims in an American court.

Gentlemen, thanks again for joining me. Let me put this to you: it is extraordinary that it is the Obama administration which has seen a massive proliferation of these drone attacks and targeted killings than the Bush administration did, and that there is barely an outcry in this country about it.

You can be sure, Vince Warren, if this had happened under President Bush, it would be scandalous. People would have been in the streets marching.

WARREN: No, you're exactly right. It's the --

AMANPOUR: So what is it?

WARREN: -- well, the proliferation has been astonishing. And I think what it really is, it's been 10 years of expansive executive power on part of the U.S. presidency. George Bush came in with more power than his predecessor; he then gave more power to Barack Obama than he had.

And Barack Obama is now doing Guantanamo 2.0, and taking this to the next level and using, you know, claimed military and presidential authority to kill people abroad, not just U.S. citizens, but also civilians.

AMANPOUR: But are you -- are you not amazed, Mr. Lowenthal, that there aren't further protests? (Inaudible) on the streets. I mean, in the press, amongst the (inaudible).

LOWENTHAL: (Inaudible) a bit surprising that the program goes the way it does. But, you know, Democratic presidents can always move to the right; Republican presidents can move to their left. So Obama had space where he could move into.

I think the disparity in numbers -- and I think it's a 400 percent difference -- to me is kind of intriguing. It tells you something about how this administration operates. But clearly this president has more license to do this than his predecessor.

AMANPOUR: And to that -- to that effect, he's also been talking about it somewhat in public, including to Jon Stewart, the American comedy program, the satire news program. Let's just play what he said about this recently.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, one of the things we got to do is put a legal architecture in place and we need congressional help to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president's reined in in terms of some of the decisions that we're making.


AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Lowenthal, reining in the presidents, unchecked power that needs to be reined in. Are you concerned about the slippery slope? Could this be justified by another president who'll, I don't know, go off against some other group somewhere else in the world?

LOWENTHAL: Well, of course that could happen. We saw the Tonkin Gulf resolution was used by Lyndon Johnson to justify a much wider war. If -- the terms of the congressional resolution, the law under which the president is acting, is fairly, broadly written.

So you would have to roll that back. You'd have to either suspend that law or pass another law. But, yes, the president under current legal guidelines has a lot of license.

AMANPOUR: And to you, Mr. Warren, you know, obviously you disapprove of this. But let's face it, as even Senator Wyden wrote in his letter to the president, even President Lincoln had to take up arms against Americans who decided to attack the state, Civil War.


AMANPOUR: Is it that this should never happen? Or are you looking for transparency?

WARREN: We're looking for transparency. We're looking for accountability and we're looking for this president to take -- we're not trying to tie the hands of this president. What we're trying to keep this president from doing is blindfolding the other branches of government that are -- that should be controlling the power of the presidency.

He is blindfolding Congress by not turning over information. He's blindfolding the courts by saying that there is no court that can possibly determine whether what he's doing is legal or not.

So it's not about -- it's not really about terrorism at all, from our perspective. It's about transparency and accountability so that the U.S. moves forward within the rule of law so that we can set the example for other nations.

AMANPOUR: And Mr. Lowenthal, as a former CIA official, you're obviously very concerned with where the CIA is going. It has become a paramilitary killing machine over the last 10-11 years. Do you think -- at least that's what the critics say -- do you think --

LOWENTHAL: A little hyperbolic.


AMANPOUR: Do you think that it should get back to being an intelligence gathering machine? And I'll tell you why I say that, because some of America's key allies, for instance Yemen, "The New York Times" reports interviews with Yemeni intelligence operatives, who say they are basically being shut out of this as more drone strikes are being used, more people are being killed.

And intelligence are not able to go on the street and find that kind of stuff that they need to to bring these people in and stop them that way.

LOWENTHAL: Well, as you know, Christiane, we have two drone programs. We have the one that's run by the Defense Department, and we have one that's run by the CIA. And several people have argued that we should have a single program run by the military; I would be completely comfortable with that.

And I think there has been a -- what we sometimes refer to as an overmilitarization of the CIA. It's become a very operational agency. And I would be very happy to see that scaled back somewhat so they can get back into the business of doing strategic intelligence.

So the administration says we are pivoting -- they hate the word pivot; sorry -- we are rebalancing to East Asia, I would like us to see more strategic analysis. So I certainly would be very happy with uniformed military personnel running the drone program. I don't think we would lose anything in terms of its effective in protecting the United States.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Lowenthal, Mr. Warren, thank you very much indeed for joining me. Human intelligence and transparency, those are the takeaways.

LOWENTHAL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: As for drones, as we've been discussing, some people have suggested that Americans might feel differently if they woke up every morning to hear them buzzing ominously overhead. Well, look up, America. It's the not-so-distant future, when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And one more note as John Brennan undergoes congressional hearings, hoping to be confirmed as the next CIA director, former CIA director and the outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is giving his last testimony today, saying now for the first time that he and others at the Pentagon favored supply weapons to the opposition rebels in Syria.

A few days ago, "The New York Times" reported that the outgoing secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and former general and former CIA director David Petraeus also supported arming the rebels. That was rejected by the White House. And it remains to be seen if this leads to any change in America's policy towards the Syrian conflict.

And a final note on drones: we've seen how drones have practically become America's new pilotless Air Force. Now imagine drones coming home to roost in the skies above America itself, it's already happening. Some adventurous spirits who call themselves Team Black Sheep are making amazing videos with ingenious miniature drones.

But they're also making a statement, showing security lapses in America's airspace while opening eyes to what the future may look like from the majesty of New York's Statue of Liberty to the gaudy spectacle of the Las Vegas Strip, all the way across the country to the breathtaking heights of California' Golden Gate Bridge.

Thanks to a federal law that flew under the radar last March, surveillance drones are now used to monitor U.S. borders and cash-strapped police departments have started exchanging expensive helicopters for inexpensive drones. And in two short years, commercial drones will be allowed to take flight, putting even more eyes in the sky. So fasten your seat belts, America.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.