John Kerry Defends U.S. Drone Strikes

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A Harvard College senior born in Pakistan asked John Kerry this week about his role in drone strikes by the U.S. military in her native land and other countries.

Kerry, who served as U.S. Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s second term, appeared at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government on Tuesday, November 27.

The United States uses unmanned drones in certain foreign countries to attack targets the military has identified as terrorists.

The student cited reports that the U.S. military conducted 73 drone strikes while Kerry was Secretary of State, which she criticized sharply.

Here is a transcript of the end of her statement:

“Now this has killed many, countless individuals. The U.S. government has intervened without having due cause. Immediate or imminent threat has been able to be co-opted by vague phrases like ‘We don’t have to have immediate threat present.’ People, such as able-bodied males of military age, have been labeled as militants, and their innocence was not investigated during the time of drone attacks. Knowing that we are attacking people without due reason, innocent people, I wanted to ask you if you can illuminate us on your understanding of why you were complacent with this brutal and cruel drone strike program, against countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and if can elucidate us with any regrets that you have.”

Watch the Harvard Senior’s Statement About Drones and Question Here

John Kerry answered at length. Here’s a transcript, omitting words where there is an ellipsis:

“You use the word ‘complacent.’ You said, ‘Why are you complacent?’ Uh, and that’s an assumption that I disagree with. I just, I’ve never been complacent. And I know President Obama, never complacent on this. We worked exceedingly hard to deal with the moral dilemma of preventing people from being blown up. Ah, innocent people, by terrorists. And the whole premise of going into Afghanistan — which is why I have never equated Afghanistan to sort of Vietnam or other things. There was a reason for us to go. I voted for us to go. We were attacked from Afghanistan, and the biggest attack since Pearl Harbor. And there was a reason for us to go there, which was to deal with ungoverned spaces from which we would be threatened.

“Now, you can make arguments about where we are and what we’re doing now has [Kerry laughs slightly] greatly crept beyond that. But that’s not we’re talking about here. It’s about the morality and challenge of drone strikes. President Obama put in place the most rigorous — at least ten standards, if I recall — that had to be met before any strike could take place. And if there was any potential of collateral damage, significant collateral damage, the president wouldn’t do it. Even if we knew a significant individual was in the house, or in the target.

“Does that mean that innocent people would escape altogether? No, it doesn’t. And one of the balances that a president of a country has to make when you’re trying to protect your nation is loss of life in order to save lives. This is the dilemma of the atomic bomb. Nagasaki, Hiroshima. It’s the dilemma of the firebombing of Dresden. It’s the dilemma of warfare itself and civilians being caught in the middle of it. And I think the standards the president applied — I went over to, I can’t say where, but I went to special locations where I sat and looked at the standards being applied, I was so concerned about it and so noncomplacent about it, ‘cause I wanted to know how we make that judgment. And I literally watched people running around in a yard where dogs were barking and there were kids, and nothing was done, because of that. People unbelievable acts of discretion in order to protect life.

“But we also had to protect ourselves from having these guys who were willing to go into the subways of London or Paris or Istanbul, use gas or, you know, whatever it was going to be to take other innocent lives, and our responsibility was to protect people against that. And you can imagine what would happen in the middle of an election in the United States if all of a sudden there was an enormous explosion. As it is we had a minor one or two things. But I think our public officials deserve unbelievable praise for the ways in which law enforcement and homeland security and airport security and everybody else have struggled to keep people safe, and not have another incident like we had before.

“Now there’s another challenge in Pakistan, and nobody was closer to the government than I was and working to try some of these things out. We had a terrible incident with a CIA contractor who shot some people in the streets and we had to work through the difficulties of that. And we had to work through the difficulties of several terrorist organizations never being brought to account by the government of Pakistan, particularly in the western part of Pakistan, where literally the Taliban had sanctuary. And the question of this sanctuary was an enormous diplomatic and moral equivalency challenge, if you will.

“So all I can say to you … is that these are tricky, difficult issues. But I want you to know that the president of the United States demanded the highest standards, from the joint chiefs, from every branch of the military, and from all of our intelligence agencies, before anybody was allowed to take any life. And I think the United States is unique in the level of standards that we did apply.”

Watch John Kerry’s Answer About U.S. Drone Strikes