President Obama outlined the future of his counterterrorism polices Thursday in a wide-ranging speech that sought to more clearly define the American enemy, make lethal government actions more accountable to Congress and signal that the nation’s long war against al-Qaeda will one day end.
In a lengthy speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama called again for Congress to help close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an early promise he has yet to fulfill. He announced that he would lift the moratorium on transferring Guantanamo’s Yemeni detainees to their home country, among other steps to help thin out the prison’s population of 166 people, many of them now on a hunger strike.
Obama also outlined for the first time the legal guidelines surrounding the use of armed drones in defined war zones and outside of them. The program, which Obama has expanded significantly since taking office, remains classified, but the president has said that he would be open to working with Congress on establishing an independent court to review future drone targets.
Obama said the country is at a crossroads in its counterterrorism fight: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”
Stressing the need to balance civil liberties and national security, Obama said journalists should not be “at legal risk for doing their jobs.” Rather, he said, the focus should be “on those who break the law” by leaking classified information. He said he has raised his concerns about “overreaching” with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
As part of his plans for transforming the targeted-killing program, Obama signed a presidential directive that sets guidelines for when a drone strike can be used, including higher standards for setting targets and in protecting against civilian deaths.
The directive states that targets must pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to the United States and that the government must assure Obama that there is a “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed in the strike. Senior administration officials, briefing journalists before the speech, said both standards are higher than those previously used.
The change is likely to slow the already-diminished pace of the drone campaign and reduce, but not eliminate, the CIA’s role.
Obama’s guidance includes a “preference” that the Department of Defense play the lead role in lethal operations overseas. That language suggests a significant change in course for the CIA, which has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, killing an estimated 3,000 militants and civilians.
But Obama stopped well short of ending the CIA’s drone program, leaving ample latitude for continued strikes in Pakistan as room for the agency to operate in other countries that allow their territory to be patrolled by U.S. military drones.
A senior administration official said the new policy reflects recognition that the Pentagon is “the appropriate agency to use force outside active war zones,” but alluding to agency operations, said, “That’s not to say the U.S. doesn’t pursue a range of counterterrorism options around the world.”
Officials also alluded to a carve-out that would enable the CIA to continue hitting targets in Pakistan that are not part of al-Qaeda but pose a threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, at least until the end of 2014, when most American forces will be gone.
The senior administration official placed the war in Afghanistan in a “different context” from the broader counterterrorism campaign, saying there will still be a “dual need for action against core al-Qaeda and force protection” until the drawdown is complete.
The CIA has had sole responsibility for the drone campaign in Pakistan, mainly because of terms set by the Pakistani government, which has never acknowledged that it allows the strikes.
Even as he set new limits, Obama defended the drone program, saying that it had taken an enormous toll on al-Qaeda and associated forces. Still, he acknowledged that some have expressed concerns about its legality and morality.
“As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why; about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality,” he said.
But Obama was confident in saying that the strikes have saved lives by disrupting terrorism plots worldwide. He also defended the actions as legal.
“We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first,” he said. “So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”
The president called the deaths of civilians in drone strikes “heartbreaking tragedies,” but he said those deaths should be weighed against the plans that have been foiled.
Obama also justified the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric who died in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. He said Awlaki was plotting attacks against U.S. aircraft with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Of course, the targeting of any Americans raises constitutional issues that are not present in other strikes — which is why my administration submitted information about Awlaki to the Department of Justice months before Awlaki was killed and briefed the Congress before this strike as well,” he said. “But the high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens.”
Obama’s speech Thursday came almost exactly four years after he initially pledged to bring national security policy in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era closer to what he described as American traditions of human rights, public transparency and the rule of law.
In that National Archives address, Obama declared that the country “went off course” during the George W. Bush administration, resorting to interrogation tactics he has called torture, the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects and the secret surveillance of private citizens.
But his efforts to set the country back on what he believes is a sounder legal course, as he ended the war in Iraq and winds down the one in Afghanistan, have met obstacles.
Obama sought Thursday to review his record and to describe how his counterterrorism policy, and several proposals to change it, responds to a far different security challenge than has faced the country during a dozen years of war.
While the threat of a large-scale attack within the United States has diminished, Obama said, small organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda are flourishing in some of the lawless parts of the Arab world, including in countries undergoing political transitions.
Weakening those groups require different policies, including a reliance more on drones and intelligence rather than a large U.S. military presence.
On Thursday, he called on Congress to help refine the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, to accommodate the U.S. focus from two large battlefields to many smaller ones.
Obama also spoke about the threat of so-called homegrown terrorism, the most recent incident being the Boston Marathon bombing last month. He pledged to work closely with local law enforcement officials and Muslim communities to reduce the threat.
Although Obama ended the practice of harsh interrogation, he has met significant resistance from Congress in trying to close Guantanamo Bay while expanding where drones can be used and against what targets.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration acknowledged that it has killed four Americans in overseas counterterrorism operations since 2009. It was the first time the administration has publicly taken responsibility for the deaths.
Although the acknowledgment, contained in a letter from Holder to Congress, does not say how the four were killed, three are known to have died in CIA drone strikes in Yemen in 2011: Awlaki, Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and Samir Khan. The fourth — Jude Kennan Mohammad, a Florida native indicted in North Carolina in 2009 — was killed in Pakistan, where the CIA has operated a drone campaign against terrorism suspects for nearly a decade.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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