WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser defended using drones to launch deadly missiles against militants and terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, arguing Monday that the unmanned aircraft have helped prevent deeper military conflicts.
The comments by John Brennan marked the first time that a senior White House official has spoken at length in public about drone operations, which have been widely reported but are officially covert.
The administration's growing reliance on drones has stirred deep controversy at home and abroad. On Sunday, unmanned aircraft killed at least three suspected militants in the tribal region of northern Pakistan despite the Pakistani government's insistence that the U.S. attacks have infringed on the country's sovereignty and killed or injured hundreds of civilians over the past three years.
But in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank, Brennan said civilian casualties from drone strikes are "exceedingly rare."
"We take it seriously," he said. "We go back and review our actions."
Brennan strained to answer critics who have sought information for years on how U.S. officials decide whom to target and how often civilians have been accidentally killed in drone attacks.
"We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing," he said. "This is a very high bar."
Brennan said the campaign of targeted drone strikes has reduced danger to U.S. pilots, limited civilian casualties and helped prevent deeper U.S. military actions overseas.
Until recently, no Obama administration official had publicly acknowledged the covert drone program, although hundreds of CIA drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since 2009.
Obama acknowledged the classified program Jan. 30 when he said the United States has to be "judicious in how we use drones" in response to a question about attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Brennan said he was speaking about the drone program because Obama had instructed officials to be more open about it.