President Obama discusses drone strikes against Al Qaeda and other militants… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama offered a vigorous defense of using unmanned aircraft to kill Al Qaeda operatives and other militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and, in the process, officially acknowledged the highly classified CIA drone program that U.S. officials had refused to discuss in public until now.
"I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones," Obama said Monday, adding that they have been used for "very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates."
Obama went on to say that "obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA," the acronym for Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, and for "going after Al Qaeda suspects who are in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan."
"This thing is kept on a very tight leash," Obama said. The U.S. does not use drones "willy-nilly" but in a way that avoids more intrusive military actions.
He described the attacks as carefully targeted. But drone attacks known as "signature strikes" — which are not aimed at specific individuals but against vehicles, camps or houses believed to be used by militants — have expanded dramatically during his presidency.
Obama made the comments in a "virtual interview" that was conducted via Google+ and YouTube, with questions coming from among hundreds of thousands that were submitted online. Five individuals were selected to participate in the online "hangout" with the president.
Although the CIA's use of armed Predator drones to strike against Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan is well-known in both countries, U.S. officials have declined to discuss the program in public — in part out of fears that doing so would further inflame relations with Pakistan.
Administration officials have generally refused to acknowledge the strikes, except anonymously, or have referred to them obliquely as "counter-terrorism operations."
U.S. officials have begun to edge away from that stance in recent months, with Pentagon chief Leon E. Panetta last October referring to the CIA's use of drones while he was CIA director. But he didn't mention where the attacks had occurred, nor did he explicitly say that the drones are used not just for surveillance but to kill people.
For Obama, it was a significant departure from his cautious avoidance of the subject in the past. Since he has begun to shift into campaign mode in 2012, Obama has spoken often about his success in fighting Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But he hadn't been asked directly about the drones this year until Monday.
Obama echoed the arguments of Pentagon and CIA officials, who often make the point in private discussions that the drones can perform targeted strikes and thereby substantially reduce the potential for civilian casualties associated with high-altitude bombing.
But Obama went well beyond that as he took issue with a story Monday in the New York Times, which reported that the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones to protect U.S. embassies, consulates and personnel still stationed in Iraq after the withdrawal of American troops.
Some Iraqi officials are angry about the program and see it as a violation of their sovereignty, the New York Times reported. But Obama argues that the U.S. respects the sovereignty of other nations even as it uses drones within their borders.
"The truth of the matter is, we're not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside of Iraq," Obama said. "There's some surveillance to make sure that our embassy compound is protected."
David Cloud in the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.