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Former CIA official Phil Mudd defends use of drones

October 22nd, 2013
03:27 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

On the day that two major human rights organization released reports lambasting the U.S. use of drones, a former CIA official defended their use in an interview with CNN’s Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

“Americans want war to be antiseptic,” Philip Mudd, who worked for the CIA Counterterrorism Center, said. “Precision to me means you identify a target and you strike a target. If that definition extends to meaning ‘We will never kill a civilian,’ I’m going to tell you, that’s not war.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International examined the cases of dozens of civilians killed by U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan.

They accuse of the U.S. of “extrajudicial killings,” amounting even at times to “war crimes.”

“People have come to understand that war equates to tragedy,” Mudd said.

Some skeptics, however, argue that the tragedy can have real consequences – that drone strikes foment anger and, in turn, terrorism.

“I don’t buy it,” Mudd told Gorani. “I understand people are angry with these attacks. … But if you’re arguing as a practitioner whether this kills terrorists and eliminates terrorism, I think that the track record on the elimination of al Qaeda operational leaders is indisputable.”

The former CIA official did acknowledge that we are in “chapter one of a debate” on drones that will last years – a debate that he called “fair.”

Despite being “dramatically” effective at killing terrorists, he said, “this is not a long term solution to a problem.”

He also agreed with the guideline set out by President Barack Obama, that capturing terrorists is indeed a better alternative to killing them in drone strikes.

Mudd says that he did not have that option available to him when he worked in counterterrorism at the CIA.

Just earlier this month, the U.S. staged two high-profile raids to capture suspected terrorists – one in Somalia and one in Libya.

The big question that policymakers must consider, Mudd said, is risk.

“I think the operation in Somalia looked good,” he told Gorani. But “if you’d had three Seals killed there, I’m sure people in your shoes and other shoes would have said, ‘Why didn’t we use a drone? Why did we put Special Forces at risk?’”

“I agree that capture is not only a viable alternative, it’s the best alternative,” he said. But “if the risk is killing a bunch of American kids, or special operators, I’d say stand back – the drone is a better option.”

Going forward, there is a “bigger question” to examine regarding the use of drone strikes, he told Gorani.

“This drone capability gives the president of the United States and others the option to intervene in places we could not intervene before,” Mudd said. “So in 2015 or 2020, when there’s a threat in Nigeria, a threat in Mali, a threat in Mauritania – how do you develop … the international law and the international basis for operations that says you can go kill somebody?”

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soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Matt

    I wonder if he would also defend the use of drones if other nations would use drones to kill terrorists (and surrounding civilians) that the US is harboring – for example Luis Posada Carriles. If it's OK for the US to break international law, invade the airspace of a sovereign nation without their permission and indiscriminately kill their civilians, it would also be OK for Russia, China or other nations to do the same in the US.

    October 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Reply
    • Jack Johnson

      Precisely. I agree with you. People can't claim that they or their nation has the right to do this unless it goes both ways. However, not ONE of the people I've talked to who support the U.S. bombing, attacking, or droning other countries for security, terrorism, or a perceived threat has ever said to me that is hence okay to for others to do the same to us. It's simple, under the same logic we are a threat to them and if we set this precedent, then they too have the right to preemptively strike us, secure their interests, etc. Collateral damage be darned! This is precisely why it is illegal under international law.

      October 23, 2013 at 1:03 am | Reply
    • Yankee Mike Bravo

      Could you an example of indiscriminate killing using drones? Just one.

      October 23, 2013 at 4:36 am | Reply
      • scrut

        Read the UN report. It lists 400

        October 23, 2013 at 8:06 am |
      • scrut

        Or read the report from Human Rights Watch about indiscriminate targeted killings by the US in Yemen.

        Let me quote that report:

        "they were respected members of their community, Salim bin Ali Jaber, a cleric and father of seven"

        "these attacks were in clear violation of international humanitarian law—the laws of war—because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons"

        October 23, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  2. popseal

    Fill the skies with these wonderful deadly toys. Kill every known Muslim terrorist and their supporting friends.
    "Civilians" standing too close to their killer friends need to die too. Deal with it !

    October 22, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • Factorx

      Hate....such a commodity nowadays...

      October 22, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  3. Marc Schlee

    Drones are a dramatically effective recruiting tool for extremist organizations, guaranteeing that the problem will never be solved and military-industrial complex will continue to receive the money that could be going to infrastructure, schools and health care.

    October 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • Barry

      effective tools? These ppl have been killing each others since time immemorial. That was not the problem till they decided that their outlook now included rest of world with this rabid ideology. Have opponents ever urged all terrorists to surrender and face consequences? Never. Did these terrorists ever worry about inflicting civilian casualties? Never. This is a war of ideology. On one side a puritanical religion which wants to subjugate everyone and hellbent on destroying itself. Who is responsible for long ques at Airport? Terrorists should have known that just as they find targets, the opponents will soon hit them with unforseen blowback and yes it does include their relatives and kin.

      October 23, 2013 at 2:42 am | Reply
  4. dantheman

    There will always be civilian casualties whether we like it or not.This is war ! We should never pretend that any civilian casualties can be avoided.War is war and is cruel. People should learn how to deal with it, otherwise we might find ourselves being conquered by our enemies due to too much hypocrisy and too soft in the battlefield..

    October 22, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • Factorx

      Who are you at war with? Who is america at war with? War with Iraq? i thought that ended....war at Afghanistan...sure but if you at war with afghanistan why is drone strikes happenning at Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan? War on Terror? Look up definition of war, War is between two nations.... not a terrorist organization..."War" on Terror is false, and falsely advertised. I can shoot a Pakistani civilian or Yemeni and say he was aiding terrorists if he was on the same street or in the same deli as the terrorists are. So his death is justified? I dont think so.... Its so easy to say it is because you are a thousand miles away and can feel nothing. So stop arguing something you have no idea about.

      October 22, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Reply
      • Obamerican

        @FactorX - right on brother.

        October 23, 2013 at 1:49 am |
      • dantheman

        Remember when muslim extremists declared war with America? We are at war with muslim extremists and no one can ever deny that...They indiscriminately killed anyone they can whenever and wherever they you think their indiscriminate killings of many innocents are justified ? Think about it.....and one more thing. i'm not at war with anyone! I am jmerely stating my own opinion according to what i have seen....

        October 23, 2013 at 4:27 am |
      • Yankee Mike Bravo

        You need to send your definition of war to Congress. When they gave permission to President Bush [and later to President Obama] to use all necessary force against terrorists, they didn't set any geographical boundaries on this action.

        October 23, 2013 at 4:39 am |
      • dantheman

        I'm not at war with anybody.. just merely stating my opinion according to what i have observed.....

        October 23, 2013 at 6:07 am |
      • dantheman

        You 're the one who's suppose to stop arguing for you don't really know what you are talking about !Obviously ,you base your opinion on whatever you hear from outside sources.. I'm not as dumb as what you think I am!!!I am smart enough to know a lot better than you do !! You should carefully observe and do your own research and not based on what you've heard from those activists who wants to destroy America!!!! Long live america!!!!

        October 23, 2013 at 8:02 am |
  5. Usman Haq

    Dear Mr. President Obama!!

    I am writing you this letter with this hope that you might get a chance to read what I have to say about your policy on Drone Strikes in Pakistan. I am sure after meeting with Malala you have a better understanding of the negative impact of drone strikes in Pakistan if not, I would make sure that I explains you in detail the negative impacts of these drone strikes in Pakistan.

    Drone strikes are great tool to deal with terrorism but not in a state like Pakistan especially in the tribal areas, where people are illiterate and have strong reservations about the policy of USA against terrorists. To be honest I do admit, in fact many Pakistani’s admit that Pakistan do have some extremist group in Pakistan but that doesn't mean you have the license to kill them without giving them trial. No one is guilt till proven; I guess as a educated nation we know this very well. My question for you Mr. President is that Why don't we capture them and punish them hard so, others can learn from it? Why no one is being punished held at Guatemala? Is it because we don't have any evidence against them if that’s the case than how can we kill someone? How can someone be so cruel to do this especially Americans and you Mr. President? Believe me these drones have already spread a wave of hate throughout Pakistan. People who LOVE United States can't defend their love for USA when they are in Pakistan because of these strikes. Every Drone strike in Pakistan is increasing hate and anger against Americans. Mr. President these drone strikes are putting millions of Americans life in danger everyday. I request you to please review your policy on drone strikes, have Pakistan army to use these drone instead of Americans so, Americans don’t be blamed for it.

    Mr. President I have given you just a little overview of what I want to say. I know this explanation is not quite enough for you to change your policy on drone attack but please allow me once to explain you the negative impacts of drones. Please!!

    October 22, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • Barry

      It would all stop if u stop harboring terrorists like Al Quaida, LeJ, SSP, JeM, LeT, whose flags can be seen flying high from Mustag to Muzaffarbad. Remember there is a price to pay for ur misdeeds. U ppl have been killing each other since time immemorial, remember SSP and Tehrik e jafariya, where r drones. Where is Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed. Why is u r army afraid to go in NWFP and FATA and Waziristan. Where was the anger when Jinnah killed 400 pakhtuns in a single day (khudai khidmatgars). Stop fooling ppl. If u want to go back to stone ages and ride camels without electricity, so b it. If u ever try to impose this rabid ideology on others, u r getting what u deserve. Did usama capture anybody and try them in court, khalid sheikh mohammed try anybody in court? No. U r simply reaping harvest of what u have sown so enjoy.

      October 23, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
      • dantheman

        very well said!!

        October 23, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • scrut

        None of this gives you the right to break international law, disregard human rights, murder and torture innocent civilians and start an illegal war of aggression. If you do, you are not one bit better than the terrorists you claim to fight against.

        October 23, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • Realist

      Brother!!! To be honest the is situation is much deeper. USA/Pakistani relations are based on needs. It is a hard truth to swallow: the Uncle Sam, we always thought will back Pakistan against Soviets, Indians etc. has not only disappointed rather created mess. Matter of fact is: USA is the largest contributor to the troubles which Pakistan is facing today. Yesterdays Jahadis are today's terrorist for USA.

      It is better for Pakistan to let USA pull out her troops from Afghanistan. Then again Pakistan have to clean the mess created by them in the region. It is important that Pakistan keeps an eye on India who is war mongering on her borders. The next 4-6 months are critical for Pakistan and we cannot put stacks on USA now. India is again creating a trap by instigating Russia into Afghanistan which can be dangerous for Pakistan. Russia has scores to settle with Pakistan and India knows it very well. We dont have good relations with Iran either as it is our rival in all the matter related to western borders and above all she is a Mullah driven theocracy.

      In post 2014 scenario It is better to say USA goodbye for good and look for other countries. We can find new allies who doesnt use you as a their own tool. Pakistan can look towards South America, European nations, and Far East.

      October 23, 2013 at 4:21 am | Reply
  6. Factorx

    Your letter is touching but i doubt anyone on white house would receive it let alone Mr. President reading it. Sorry your chances are slim to none. It is a shame though.

    October 22, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  7. Vixxen

    I suggest all of you people saying that the use of drones is ok, to place yourself in the shoes of the civilians living in these neighbourhoods or even better, imagine your loved ones live there??
    How keen are you on US using drone attacks in the area to kill some terrorists you have nothing to do with? Are you OK with being the collateral damage? or the possibility of ur loved ones being the collateral damage?? Think before you speak!!!

    October 23, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply
  8. James

    Mr Mudd must be a member of the neo-cons inner circle. All civilian deaths are simply colateral damage to them.

    October 23, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
  9. dantheman

    Any conflict using conventional weapons and start killing each other should be considered as war....

    October 23, 2013 at 6:03 am | Reply
  10. ashok

    There is clearly something asymmetric about one nation having the power to decide that some individual residing outside its sovereign territory needs to die and sending a missile to do the job. Sometimes the wrong person gets hit, often innocent people become collateral damage. Unfortunate, but this is an unconventional conflict. All one can hope is that the power will be used with restraint and on the basis of exceptionally reliable intelligence.

    October 23, 2013 at 6:10 am | Reply
  11. Drone

    America needs to wake up. War and drones lead to more war and drones. Similar to the fact more guns lead to more shootings. I heard a joke the other day used in the context of guns in America it was"Do you reckon if I gave you hundreds of thousands of mobile phones you'd be more or less likely to make a call?".

    October 23, 2013 at 6:48 am | Reply
  12. coyote or that sherman woman

    war is what people do when they are too lazy to negotiate. all war is preventable in 2013. There is no excuse. So all these reasons are ridiculous. elect negotiators. in fact... don't elect – be the ball.

    October 23, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
  13. Joy

    When the army is afraid to fight toe to toe we use the drones.Our soldiers are not what they used to be.They are not real men.

    October 23, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
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    • dantheman

      Thumbs up!!

      October 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • dantheman

      I totally agree with you......

      October 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • scrut

      You might want to read the world terror report of the US state department. It clearly states that since America has started the "war on terror", the number of terrorists have quadrupled.
      Countless studies show that America and its crimes in the past 12 years are among the main reasons the world has a terror-problem of this extent. You created them. So indirectly, you are the biggest sponsor of terrorism worldwide.
      You create new terrorists very time you murder another innocent civilian, every time one of your soldiers rapes a girl, every time your guys get off without charges despite the crimes they commit.

      October 24, 2013 at 4:51 am | Reply
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