President Obama on Thursday said he is imposing new limitations on the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists and took fresh steps to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, declaring America at a “crossroads” in its fight against terrorism.
In the most expansive detailing of his counterterrorism policies, the president outlined the legal rationale for remote-controlled, targeted killings, which increased dramatically under his watch. The president said he wants the military, rather than the CIA, to play a larger role in operating the drones.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama said during an hour-long speech at the National Defense University in D.C.
Addressing one of the glaring unfulfilled promises of his presidency, Obama lifted his self-imposed moratorium on transferring Gitmo detainees to Yemen, appointed a new State Department envoy to oversee transfers to third-party countries and vowed to bring terrorists to justice in American courts. Nearly 90 Guantanamo prisoners have been cleared for transfer but are still being held indefinitely in Cuba.
With revelations that his Justice Department had secretly monitored reporters in Washington, Obama vowed to do more to ensure journalists could work without fear of prosecution. He instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to report back to him by July 12 on administration guidelines for investigating reporters.
“I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” Obama said.
The president is framing his actions as a break from the national security policies of former President George W. Bush, who said the United States was engaged in an ongoing “war on terror.”
“We must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts,” Obama said.
Republicans were immediately skeptical of Obama’s new blueprint on national security.
“Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” House Speaker John Boehner asked in a series of questions to the president. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat? Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”
Obama’s own political base has hammered him for deploying counterterrorism policies he derided as a candidate. Obama looked to quell such concerns Thursday.
“For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen -- with a drone, or a shotgun -- without due process,” he insisted. “Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.”
Obama’s speech came a day after his administration publicly acknowledged it had used drones to kill four U.S. citizens living abroad. The president said that disclosure is the beginning of a new era of transparency about how government leaders protect the homeland.