President Barack Obama admitted that he and his administration came to "view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism," but said it plans on creating more oversight for the program going forward.
In a letter written by Eric Holder to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the federal government finally acknowledged Tuesday that it had killed four American citizens in drone strikes, including three who were not specifically targeted.
John Bellinger, a legal adviser to the Department of State from 2005 to 2009 and legal adviser to the White House's National Security Counsel from 2001 to 2005, said that after seeing President George W. Bush get in trouble with indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, Obama turned to drone strikes.
"This administration has decided they don't want to do detention, because the Bush administration got into trouble with detention, so now they're just going to kill people," Bellinger said.
Obama's speech Wednesday marked the first time he has spoken extensively about the country's targeted killing program.
Obama defended the use and legality of drones to kill suspected terrorists, but admitted that anytime the country intervenes in foreign nations, there will be drawbacks. Though the administration has deemed targeted killings legal, he said that doesn't mean it's good policy.
"To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance," he said.
Obama said that "boots on the ground" operations such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan "cannot be the norm" because such actions could lead to "more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars," and that drone strikes were the lesser of two poor options.
According to Obama, notes bin Laden kept in his compound said that al-Qaeda "cannot fight air strikes with explosives" and that other al-Qaida operatives said the strikes were extremely effective.
"Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and outrage," Obama said. "It is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world."
"The very precision of drone strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism," he added.
Obama said he decided to declassify the drone program earlier this week to "facilitate transparency and debate" on the issue.
Over the past several years, the United States has carried out at least 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Mali. So-called "targeted killings" have taken out some high-level al-Qaida operatives, but have also resulted in the deaths of many citizens. How many depends on the data are being used: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says that approximately 2,000 civilians have been killed. Obama said Wednesday there is a "wide gap" between official government numbers and private estimates.
"Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars," he said. "For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live."
Wednesday's speech did not come with any concrete plans to change the drone program going forward. Obama discussed the possibility of creating a "special court" to evaluate targeted killings, but said that would create problematic constitutional issues. His administration has also floated the possibility that the drone program's operation will be switched from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense.