President Barack Obama says the U.S. military only uses drones in "heavily constrained" circumstances, that its preference is to detain, interrogate and process terrorists.
Speaking at the National Defense University at Fort McNair Thursday, President Obama justified the secretive and rarely talked about military tactic as "narrowly targeting" the al-Qaida terrorist group and its affiliates.
"Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaida commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield," the president said. "Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives."
Obama acknowledged that any U.S. military action in foreign lands impacts public opinion overseas and risks creating more enemies. But he said the U.S. simply cannot let terrorists create footholds where they can plan and carry out deadly attacks.
"Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option."
President Obama's speech comes hours after the U.S. said overseas drone attacks have killed four U.S. Americans.
U.S. law enforcement officials said that one of the four Americans was a young man who left the country for Pakistan intent on engaging in violent terrorism against the United States.
One American, Jude Kenan Mohammad, had not been previously identified in news media reports as being killed by a U.S. drone attack.
Authorities say that Mohammad left the U.S. in late 2008 and was killed at age 23 by a CIA drone strike on a compound in Pakistan in late 2011. At the time, he was with other insurgents in a region controlled by extremists, but the U.S. said he was not directly targeted in the drone attack.