As It Happens

Former CIA counter-terrorism director defends Washington's drone strikes

Robert Grenier says, despite the unintended deaths of two Western hostages, the use of drones is necessary and will continue. But, he warns, civilian casualties raise moral doubts and create new radicals.
In this 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File) (The Associated Press)

Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto weren't meant to die.

When an American drone hit the remote site in Pakistan where al Qaeda was holding the two Western hostages, those who fired the missiles had no idea the captives were inside. Nor did they know the identities of the militants they killed.

Some think that's a problem. But, despite calls to review the drone program, Robert Grenier believes it is necessary.

Robert Grenier is a former CIA station chief in Pakistan. He also used to run the agency's counter-intelligence operations. (Photo:

"The intelligence is never perfect and particularly in a case like this, which is quite exceptional," the former CIA counter-intelligence director tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I think that the reasons that these drone strikes have occurred in the past still apply now and will continue to apply."

He adds that there are very few other Western hostages being held in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan targeted by the drones. And, more often, the civilian casualties of drone strikes are locals. That, he acknowledges, is a problem.

"In some cases, [that] has caused us to do more harm than good," Grenier says. "Aside from the moral aspect, there are very important practical consequences because we have radicalized individuals who would have otherwise had no quarrel with the United States or the West." . 

Still, the drone program enjoys broad, bi-partisan support in Washington. And that doesn't seem likely to change soon, despite the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto.

American aid contractor Warren Weinstein was captured by al Qaeda in August 2011. He and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto were accidentally killed in a drone strike in January. (Photo: Facebook)

"Many of the same people who get very squeamish about aggressive interrogations of terrorists seem to have no qualms at all about killing them from the air," says Grenier. "It all just seems antiseptic. People just disappear in a cloud of smoke."

Nonetheless, he feels drones are a tool that must stay in the American arsenal.

"In areas that are otherwise completely outside of effective and responsible political control, we have a right to exercise our sovereign right of self-defence," Grenier says. "That said, I think we have to use the power that we have very, very carefully."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?