Obama Sets Policy to Cut Reliance on Drone Strikes

President Barack Obama announced he’s redefining U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to reduce the reliance on drone strikes and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, policies which he said carry an international backlash that over time makes the U.S. less safe.

Obama, in a speech today in Washington, said the U.S. must prepare for the transition from a long campaign against terrorists to the eventual day when “this war, like all wars, must end.”

While calling the U.S. drone campaign justified and within the law, Obama said he’s moving to tighten the definition of terrorism suspects who can be targeted in strikes, and said he will work with Congress to add more scrutiny to a largely secret program. He also said he’ll ask Congress to lift restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees to other countries and lift a moratorium on transfers to Yemen.

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said in his address. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

The speech was aimed at easing years of criticism about U.S. counterterrorism policy from Congress, human rights groups and the international community. It comes amid steps by Congress to review its authorization for the use of military force that stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and amid concerns that other countries are pursuing drone technology.

Drone Strikes

On the eve of Obama’s remarks, his administration for the first time acknowledged that U.S. drone strikes 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 said no armed drones should be deployed over U.S. soil.

Obama signed new presidential policy guidelines that give a bigger role for the drone program to the military rather than the CIA and setting standards to be applied in carrying out strikes. Those include not using drones when a target can be captured and only when there is an imminent threat.

Casualty Count

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.

He called al-Qaeda a “shell of its former self” and warned that the U.S. might be drawn into unnecessary wars without guidelines suited for a new era of conflict.

The address also came weeks after Obama renewed his 2009 pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo, in the face of resistance from Congress, and as a hunger strike there has led to the force-feeding of 30 prisoners.

Prosecuting Terrorists

He said U.S. policy has long preferred the capture and prosecution of suspected terrorists, whether in 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 called on Congress to lift restrictions on prisoner transfers and 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 stand out of the way of closing 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.

A heckler protesting the detentions at Guantanamo interrupted Obama three times, stopping him as he spoke about the prison camp.

Departing from his text, Obama said that, while he disagreed with her, “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to” because these are “tough issues.”

He also mentioned the force-feeding of the hunger-striking detainees.

“Is this who we are?” he asked. “Is this what our founders foresaw?”

The woman was eventually removed from the audience, which was made up mostly students at the National Defense University, government officials and experts on national security and human rights.

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