President Barack Obama's pledge to more narrowly restrict and monitor the country's use of drones to strike targets overseas may garner some applause from allies abroad. But he was careful not to over-promise, signaling that the CIA's covert war in Pakistan is likely to continue at least for now.
Obama acknowledged this week that U.S. drone attacks are not a cure-all in the fight against terrorists. And he put America on a course to slowly pull out of the once-renowned global war on terror and focus more intently on a military, intelligence and law enforcement campaign against suspected terrorists.
Some questions and answers about the program:
Q: What are they?
A: The U.S. has an extensive fleet of remotely piloted vehicles, known as drones, but it relies most heavily for targeted strikes on the Predators and Reapers, which are armed with Hellfire missiles. They are controlled from as far away as the U.S., but also from bases closer to the war zones, including Djibouti and Sicily.
Q: Who conducts drone strikes?
A: The U.S. military has routinely conducted drone strikes in war zones, including a bit more than 500 in Afghanistan last year, an increase over the 2011 number of nearly 300. Those drone strikes are largely known and are part of the military's warfighting effort. The CIA, meanwhile, conducts its own, more secret drone war, mainly concentrating on strikes in Pakistan's border region, as well as some in Yemen, where the military has also conducted some operations.
Q: How big is the CIA program?
A: While the government does not disclose details about the classified program, independent groups have collected data on the CIA drone strikes. The best estimates are that the CIA, has conducted more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 and, along with the military, has conducted fewer than 100 total in Yemen and Somalia. U.S. officials have only rarely referred to the agency's secret drone program publicly, but there is now a shift to transfer authority for drone strikes to the military for all but those conducted in Pakistan and Yemen. Estimates suggest that as many as 3,000 people have been killed by U.S. drones since 2004, the majority in Pakistan. The group New America Foundation estimates that roughly 21 percent of those killed are believed to be nonmilitants.
Q: How will U.S. drone policy change?
A: Obama said the administration has routinely briefed Congress on drone strikes, but that information is often classified, so is not available to the public. Obama pledged Thursday to consider ways to try to increase the oversight of drone strikes outside war zones. And he said he has signed new policy guidelines for the use of drones. The policy calls for drone strikes only when the target poses a "continuing and imminent" threat to the American people and when there is no other way to effectively address the danger. The president also said that before any strike is carried out, there must be "near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."
Q: What is the administration's legal rationale for using drones to kill terror suspects, including U.S. citizens, overseas?
A: Administration officials say the basis for the armed drone program derives from the president's constitutional power to protect the U.S. from imminent attack. The administration has also cited the authorization for use of military force, which Congress approved shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as legal backing for strikes against al-Qaida and its affiliates.
Q: Does Obama have the authority to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil?
A: Attorney General Eric Holder, testifying on Capitol Hill, did not rule out such a possibility but said he could only foresee that happening in an extraordinary circumstance, such as the 9/11 attack or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Obama said he does not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen - with a drone or a shotgun - without due process. He added, "Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil."
Q: What does the American public think of the drone program?
A: Most polls show Americans broadly support the use of drones to target suspected terrorists in foreign countries, though support drops somewhat if the target is a U.S. citizen and drops dramatically if they were to be used in the United States. A CBS News/New York Times poll in April found that 70 percent of Americans favor using drones to attack suspected terrorists in foreign countries, while 20 percent opposed it. Republicans were most supportive of drones - 79 percent favor their use, compared with 70 percent of independents and 64 percent of Democrats.