Obama defends drone strikes, but sets more stringent guidelines
President Barack Obama talks about national security, Thursday, May 23, 2013, at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. Declaring America at a "crossroads" in the fight against terrorism, the president revealed clearer guidelines for the use of deadly drone strikes, including more control by the U.S. military, while leaving key details of the controversial program secret. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Obama said yesterday that the United States has reached a “crossroads” in the fight against terrorism and that it is time to redefine and recalibrate a war that will eventually end.
Far from repudiating the controversial use of drones against terrorist targets, Obama defended the tactic as effective, legal and life-saving. But he acknowledged that threat levels have fallen to levels not seen since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, requiring new criteria for the use of lethal force.
Obama used the first major counterterrorism address of his second term to outline newly narrowed guidelines to deploy drones only against targets that pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States and only in cases where avoiding civilian casualties is a “near certainty.”
“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
In a lengthy, wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama used the depiction of a diminished
threat environment to make the case for sweeping changes to the counterterrorism landscape, including closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and finding a U.S. site where military commission trials can be held for eligible detainees.
Among steps to help thin the detention center’s population of 166 people, many of them now on a hunger strike, he called for an end to congressional restrictions on transfers for those cleared to leave, and said he was lifting his own moratorium on the repatriation of several dozen Yemeni prisoners.
But even while declaring that “this war, like all wars, must end,” Obama made clear that other pieces of the nation’s counterterrorism apparatus will remain in place, including targeted killings with drones. He made no mention of ending the CIA’s involvement in the drone campaign.
Obama’s remarks followed a pledge in his State of the Union speech in January to make his counterterrorism policies – particularly
about drones – more transparent and accountable to
Congress and the American public.
Obama sought to both describe a reduced threat level and avoid dismissing the
risk. “Now make no mistake,” he said, “our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.” But rather than “the threat that came to our shores on 9/11,” he said al-Qaida was now “on a path to defeat.”