White House defends drone program against 'war crime' claim

Defense comes as two human-rights groups and the UN have called the legality of drone strikes into question

U.S. drones strikes in Pakistan often draw protests calling for an end to the deadly program.
Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Faced with mounting criticism over its use of drone strikes abroad, the White House responded Tuesday by saying its drone program falls within the bounds of international law and helps keep the United States safe.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama's administration was still reviewing an Amnesty International report released earlier Tuesday about civilian victims of unmanned-aircraft attacks in Pakistan. Carney said there is a wide gap between the White House's analysis and the report's findings on the number of civilians killed.

Carney also refuted claims made in the report that the United States had violated international law by indiscriminately killing civilians. He said that whenever a drone strike is planned, there must be "near certainty" that no civilians will be killed.

The White House's defense comes as Amnesty International and another organization, Human Rights Watch — along with the United Nations and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — have all called into question the CIA's use of drones and the intense secrecy surrounding the program.

The Amnesty International report reviewed 45 drone strikes in North Waziristan and surrounding regions in Pakistan in 2012 and 2013. The area is considered a hotbed of Al-Qaeda activity and is the most targeted location in the world for drone strikes. The Human Rights Watch report details the circumstances and aftermath of six drone strikes in Yemen, where drones are used less frequently than in Pakistan.

In-depth coverage of the debate over unmanned aerial vehicles

Both reports conclude that in many cases, drone strikes may have breached international laws. Both also say the White House's and CIA's lack of transparency surrounding the program makes it unaccountable to U.S. citizens and to the unintended victims of the attacks.

In one drone strike reviewed by Amnesty International, the organization said it appeared that rescuers responding to a drone attack were fired on with another drone missile — something Amnesty International said could be considered a "war crime" if the second attack was intentional.

The White House said it "strongly" disagreed with the findings in the reports.

The Obama administration may face more pressure to defend the program in the coming days and weeks.

On Wednesday, Obama was set to meet with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has promised to bring up drone attacks in his talks with the president.

Sharif on Tuesday urged the U.S. to end drone attacks completely, saying they represented a "major irritant" in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

"I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks," he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

He said Pakistan's political parties believed that drones violated the country's territorial integrity and interfered with its own efforts to fight extremism.

The U.N. will also present a report on drones later this week. Its report encourages the U.S. to make the program more transparent.

Next week two children who were injured by drone strikes in Pakistan plan to testify in front of Congress on the effects of the drone program at the request of Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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