Top Pentagon lawyer defends drone killings

In a rare public interview, Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, argued that the U.S. is able to target terrorists “with great precision,” in a defense of drone strikes.

“Now, are we perfect? No. There have been regrettable and unfortunate losses of life, but I believe we have a pretty good track record.”

A clip of Johnson’s interview with BBC’s HARDtalk is posted online with the full interview to come later Thursday and Friday.

“I would not agree it is simply a matter of the ends justifies the means,” Johnson told the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi, who pressed him on his acceptance of civilian casualties as collateral damage.

Johnson was a key advisor to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and now to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta but is little known to the general public. He was an early supporter of President Obama, serving on his transition team before being tapped as general counsel of the Defense Department. Johnson was instrumental in helping steer the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," appearing in the Pentagon briefing room and hearings in Congress at the time.

This week, Johnson said U.S. accuracy with drone strikes, without discussing specific missions, was far better than previous generations of warfare when bomber aircraft would take out “an entire city block. We are well past that,” Johnson said.

Badawi raised objections by United Nations officials to the U.S. position, but Johnson parried, arguing,  “I would respectfully disagree… I think it is, again I think we do a very, very good job of reaching those that we target with great precision.”

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