In a contentious White House briefing Tuesday, Fox News’ Ed Henry pressed spokesman Josh Earnest on how the Obama administration could claim “moral authority” as the U.S. continues with drone strikes resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians.
“You have repeatedly talked about moral authority,” Henry began. “So can you explain how the president believes how it is un-American to use these techniques, but it’s OK to ramp up the drone policy and basically kill thousands of people across the world, innocent civilians were killed?
“What’s the moral equivalency there? How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?” Henry added.
During their back-and-forth, Henry also questioned how President Obama could still employ CIA director John Brennan and FBI director James Comey, both of whom, as Henry put it, “endorsed un-American tactics.”
Ed Henry: “Following up on Jon [Karl’s] questioning on John Brennan, you also have James Comey, who served in the Bush Justice Department and helped endorse the legal memo blessing waterboarding and other enhanced techniques. How could the president appoint John Brennan and James Comey to two of the most sensitive jobs in his administration, the CIA and FBI, if they endorsed un-American tactics.”
Josh Earnest: “Well, Ed, I can tell you that Mr. Comey falls into the same category as Mr. Brennan, in terms of somebody whose advice the president is pleased that he can rely on to keep the country safe. Mr. Comey is somebody that has a strong track record, and there have been other instances, even in his service in the previous administration, where he stood up and advocated for important civil liberties protections.”
Henry: “You’re attacking Bush administration policies, but you have two of the architects of those policies serving in two of the most … endorsing the legal memo …”
Earnest: “I don’t think it’s a fair description, certainly in the role of John Brennan —“
Henry: “John Brennan served in the Bush administration …”
Earnest: “That’s right, but I don’t think it is fair at all to describe him as an architect of the process.”
Henry: “So you don’t see any contradiction between them endorsing the policy that the president is attacking, and they now serve in two of the most sensitive jobs?”
Earnest: “The president of the United States has complete confidence in the professionalism in these individuals, and he has complete confidence that these two individuals, who serve in important leadership positions on his national security team, are following the law, and doing everything that is necessary to protect the American people, and the president is pleased with their service.”
Henry: “Two days ago, you very directly said that these policies did not make us safer. Former Vice President [Dick] Cheney says that that is a crock. … How do you respond?”
Earnest: “This is not the first time, and probably not the last time that that this administration strongly disagrees with the views articulated by Vice President Cheney. … He’s got not a particularly strong track record when it comes to articulating the policy that this president believes is in the best interest of the country.”
Henry: “If Vice President Cheney has such a weak track record on those very issues, why, as Jon said, does this president’s, not President Bush’s, but this president’s CIA director basically agree with Dick Cheney that these tactics saved lives. Your CIA director agrees with him!”
Earnest: “For questions about Mr. Brennan’s positions on these issues, I would direct you to the CIA. They can explain them to you. I don’t think they would say that he agrees wholeheartedly with Vice President Cheney …”
Henry: “You have repeatedly talked about moral authority. So can you explain how the president believes that it’s un-American to use these techniques, but it’s OK to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people across the world, innocent civilians were killed. What’s the moral equivalency there? How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?”
Earnest: “Well, I think the difference here, Ed, is, and this is a stark difference in the way the United States conducts our policy, and the way that terrorists around the world conduct their policy. That there is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances that are included in the system to ensure that any counterterrorism action that is taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives.”
Henry: “But they do in the end. I understand there are safeguards. But in the end, we’ve seen many cases around the world where U.S. drones have killed innocent civilians despite those safeguards. So how do you have moral authority?”
Earnest: “What I’m saying is that is a stark difference from the tactics that are employed by our enemies, who seek to use car bombs to actually target innocent civilians.”
Henry: “No one’s defending the terrorist tactics. But by your tactics …”
Earnest: “But you’re asking about moral authority, and there is a very clear difference between the tactics that are used by terrorists and the counterterrorism tactics that are employed by the United States of America that go to great lengths to protect the lives of innocent civilians. In fact, many of the terrorists that we’re talking about, and again, many of these counterterrorism activities that are used against terrorists are targeting terrorists that themselves have targeted local populations, that have targeted fellow Muslims in some situations. So the efforts that are taken by this administration to limit or to prevent innocent civilian casualties are consistent with our values, and are consistent with our broader strategy for protecting the American people.”