"For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live," he said. Before any strike, he said, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set."
In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by the unmanned aircraft since 2003, according to the New America Foundation which maintains a database of the strikes. However, the secrecy surrounding the drone program makes it impossible for the public to know for sure how many people have been killed in in strikes, and of those, how many were intended targets.
In an attempt to lift the veil somewhat, the Justice Department revealed for the first time Wednesday that four Americans had been killed in U.S. drone strikes abroad. Just one was an intended target — Anwar al-Awlaki, who officials say had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. The other three Americans, including al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, were unintended victims.
Drones aside, some Republicans criticized Obama as underestimating the strength of al-Qaida in his speech and for proposing to repeal the president's broad authorization to use military force against the nation's enemies — powers granted to George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaida," McCain told reporters after the speech. "To somehow argue that al-Qaida is on the run comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible. Al-Qaida is expanding all over the Middle East, from Mali to Yemen and all places in between."
Obama announced new "presidential policy guidelines" on the standards his administration uses when deciding to launch drone strikes. According to an unclassified summary of the guidelines, the U.S. will not strike if a target can be captured, either by the U.S. or a foreign government; a strike can be launched only against a target posing an "imminent" threat, and the U.S. has a preference for military control of the drone program.