As White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech today defending the U.S. drone campaign against Taliban and al Qaeda militants, an audience member interrupted and delivered a minute-long speech of her own protesting the targeted killings and the death of al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki's teen son in Yemen.
"What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with our drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia?" said the well-dressed blonde woman as Brennan tried to address the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington Monday. Before she was carried bodily from the auditorium, she condemned Brennan for the death of Awlaki's U.S.-born son Abdulrahman in an October 2011 drone strike and said "I speak out on behalf of the Constitution . . . Shame on you!"
Brennan's speech defending the U.S. drone campaign, the Obama administration's first public admission that it is using drones to al Qaeda, comes as Pakistan delivered its strongest and most public condemnation yet of U.S. strikes, accusing the U.S. of violating Pakistani sovereignty, calling the campaign "a total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations."
"The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone attacks are violative of its territorial integrity and sovereignty," said the statement.
In his remarks, Brennan confirmed that the U.S. "in full accordance with the law – and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and save American lives ... 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."
Brennan stressed his belief that the strikes are allowed under both U.S. and international law, and also that they are ethical and "wise."
"They can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether," said Brennan. "Yet they are also a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians."
Brennan also asserted that the U.S. holds itself to "rigorous standards . . . when considering and authorizing strikes."
"I know that for many people," said Brennan, "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." But until al Qaeda "fades into history," concluded Brennan, "if another nation cannot or will not take action, we will. And it is unfortunate that to save innocent lives we are sometimes obliged to take lives – the lives of terrorists who seek to murder our fellow citizens."
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric and leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, died in a drone strike in Yemen last September. His 16-year-old son Abdulrahman died less than three weeks later in a separate drone strike.
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer called Brennan's speech "important ... first because it includes an unambiguous acknowledgement of the targeted killing program and second because it includes the administration's clearest explanation thus far of the the program's purported legal basis."
"But Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis," said Jaffer. "We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program -- particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects. And the administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, could be killed without charge, trial or judicial process of any kind."
Pakistan's protest came after a U.S. drone strike Sunday in Waziristan.
The strike killed three suspected militants who were hiding out in an abandoned girls school, according to U.S. officials. There were no other casualties.
Drones strikes have become increasingly unpopular in Pakistan. Earlier this month, lawmakers here established a new set of guidelines for rebuilding the country's relationship with the United States. Among their first conditions was the immediate cessation of all drone strikes in Pakistani territory.
Today's harsh condemnation is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat accusations that have soured Pakistan-U.S. relations ever since the May 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Relations hit a new low last November when a U.S. airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Solala, along the country's Afghan border. U.S. officials said the attack was a mistake, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology. In response, Pakistan closed the NATO supply route from its side of the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, cutting off supplies desperately needed to support the Afghan mission.
Recently, there had been signs that both sides were willing to compromise. Marc Grossman, U.S. special envoy to the region, recently wrapped up a two day visit to Pakistan, during which he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pakistan's foreign minister to lobby for the reopening of the route. Pakistani officials themselves say they want the route re-opened, but have set the cessation of drone strikes and a formal apology for the Solala incident as preconditions.