Panetta Signals Scaled Back Drone Program

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can see a world in which the use of drones is no longer a staple in the United States’ counterterrorism toolkit, according to an interview with ABC News.

In a wide-ranging interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Panetta spoke on topics including Afghanistan, Syria, and the current crisis in Mali. When asked about whether he believes American civilians should know more about the use of drones by the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta demurred. “I wish frankly that Americans you know, could really see what I’ve seen as director of the C.I.A. and now as Secretary of Defense in terms of our use of operations to go after those that have attacked our country,” Panetta said.

Panetta went on to defend the use of drones in going after Al Qaeda, while also leaving an opening for their eventual retirement as a cornerstone of that strategy:

PANETTA: And a key part of that has obviously been the use of the operations involving the drones that target those that are in the leadership in Al Qaeda. And that’s a reality. We’ve decimated their leadership as a result of those operations. So you know, my view of it is, you know, it’s not something that we’re going to have to continue to use forever. But it’s a very effective tool, it’s a very effective weapon at going after those who are enemies of the United States of America.

Watch the interview here:

Panetta’s statements echo those made by outgoing Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson, who has previously said that the so-called war on terror “shouldn’t be regarded as a perpetual war without any sort of end.” While Johnson’s comments earlier this month were based on a speech delivered in November at Oxford, they were expanded upon only after he left office. Panetta’s interview may come while he is heading for the exit, but he remains in charge of the Pentagon for the time being.

For now, though, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — as drones are formally known — continues unabated, with a surge of strikes within Pakistan so far in 2013. Those numbers have not been acknlowedged by the U.S. government, however, as the CIA’s program remains classified. The secrecy surrounding the program was shown in Panetta’s notable lack of a response during the interview to Raddatz’s question, the continuation of a policy that lead to several major newspapers calling for more transparency. Even unarmed drones aren’t without their own controversy, exemplified in reaction to the announcement last week a fleet of surveillance drones are being sold to Afghanistan for use after the US ends its combat mission in 2014.