President Barack Obama said the broad war powers Congress approved to fight al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shouldn’t continue forever and that he’s reining in drone strikes and paving the way to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“In the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States,” the president said in an hour-long address yesterday at National Defense University in Washington.
“Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said. “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
The president’s speech was months in the works and came a day after he signed a classified document shared with key members of Congress containing details of the changes.
While calling the U.S. drone campaign justified and legal, Obama said he was tightening the rules governing who can be targeted in the strikes by unmanned aircraft.
The U.S. military, instead of the Central Intelligence Agency, will be the lead authority for drone strikes, administration officials said. Obama said he will work with Congress on how to add scrutiny to a largely secret program.
The president said he’ll also ask Congress to lift restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees to other countries and lift a moratorium on transfers to Yemen. The Yemeni government issued a statement saying it “welcomes” Obama’s decision and will work with detainees on “their gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society.”
Obama sought to address years of criticism about U.S. counterterrorism policy from Congress, human rights groups and the international community. His speech came as Congress is reviewing the authorization of military force that stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and amid concerns that other countries are pursuing drone technology.
His remarks were punctuated by an exchange with a heckler who, before she was ultimately removed, demanded the release of Guantanamo detainees and compensation for “innocent families.” Obama said that while he disagreed with much of what the woman said, she was “worth paying attention to” if only because “these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
Harold Koh, a Yale Law professor and former State Department adviser who has defended the use of drone strikes, said it was “a very important speech in terms of saying I’m not doing this the Bush way, I’m doing this a different way.”
More than four years into his presidency, Obama has now “clearly opted for what I’d call exit strategy, over perpetual war, and that is a very big change from the last administration.”
Republican lawmakers reacted with resistance on several fronts, from winding down the authorization of military force, to sending detainees back to Yemen or releasing cleared detainees, to closing Guantanamo.
Retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell said Obama is right to shift greater responsibility for the drone program to the military from the CIA and define the limits on their use.
“The application of states’ military force should be done by the military leaders in the Department of Defense,” Powell said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Powell, who served as secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s administration, said the U.S. needs a policy for the use of drone strikes that sets out the responsibilities of the president as well as the role of Congress.
Human rights activists who are challenging the legality of drone strikes and calling for the closing of Guantanamo reacted with qualified praise to the president’s speech. Obama should have acted sooner, they said, and too many details remain secret or have yet to be decided.
“President Obama’s efforts to repair his legacy in the eyes of future historians will require that he continue to double down, if he is to fully restore this nation’s standing at home and abroad,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
On the eve of Obama’s remarks, his administration for the first time acknowledged that U.S. drone strikes overseas have killed four U.S. citizens, in Pakistan and Yemen, including al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011.
Obama said he declassified the information “to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue.” While it would be unconstitutional to kill any U.S. citizen without due process, he said, the circumstances of a citizen waging war against America changes the calculation.
In that case, “citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Obama said.
He also said no armed drones should be deployed over U.S. soil, and that drones should be used only when a target can’t be captured and when there is an imminent threat.
Christopher Swift, a national security professor at Georgetown University, said giving the Defense Department the lead instead of the CIA will “harmonize our U.S. drone operations with the longstanding laws and customs of war.”
That, along with narrowing who can be targeted, suggests Obama won’t use drones “as expansively as they’ve used it on a wide variety of targets in Pakistan,” he said.
“It puts these operations into a system of legal review,” Swift said, and “changes the cultural framework and institutional framework.”
The New America Foundation, a Washington policy group that maintains a database of reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, said drone operations peaked in Pakistan in 2010, and in Yemen in 2012, and were now on the decline in both countries. The group, using news reports, estimates CIA drones have killed between 2,780 and 4,421 militants and civilians since 2004.
Obama made clear that the use of drones won’t end. It’s “not possible for America to simply deploy a team of special forces to capture every terrorist,” he said.
The address also came weeks after Obama renewed his 2009 pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo, in the face of objections from Congress, and as a hunger strike at the facility has led to the force-feeding of 30 prisoners.
U.S. policy has long preferred the capture and prosecution of suspected terrorists, whether in U.S. civilian courts or by a military tribunal.
“The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay,” he said.
Obama said he is directing the Defense Department to designate a U.S. site where trials by military commissions can be held. He again urged lawmakers to allow the closing of the Guantanamo prison.
“There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” he said.
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