Obama retools terror war, saying America is 'at a crossroads'

In a major address on defense policy, President Obama said the war on terror is shifting and laid out new rules for drone strikes. He also proposed new plans for some Guantánamo Bay detainees.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama speaks about his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington Thursday.

America is “at a crossroads” in its fight against terrorism, President Obama declared Thursday, as he announced new guidelines narrowing the use of drones to target terror suspects, and renewed his effort to close the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Beyond Afghanistan, where the US combat mission is winding down, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” Mr. Obama said in a major address at the National Defense University in Washington.

“Now make no mistake: Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” the president continued. “From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”

Obama announced that on Wednesday, he signed a Presidential Policy Guidance that constrains the use of unmanned drone aircraft in countries that are not theaters of war. Beyond the Afghan theater, he said, the US only targets Al Qaeda and its associated forces. But even there, the use of drones is curtailed: The US must seek to capture a suspect when it has that ability.

In addition, “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty,” Obama said. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”

There must also be “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured.

Critics of US policy say the new guidance is still too vague.

“The policy standard he outlined for the targeting of individuals, requiring imminence and feasibility of capture, while narrower than prior asserted standards, also raised questions about how those standards would be interpreted,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement. “Prior Justice Department interpretations, for example, that imminence does not require clear evidence of a specific act in the immediate future, do not engender confidence.”

Acknowledging the controversy surrounding the US practice of targeted killings, Obama defended himself against the idea that conventional war would have been preferable.

“It is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world,” he said. “The results would be more US deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.”

The US program of targeted killings abroad has not been a major political liability for Obama among Americans. A Gallup poll in March found that 65 percent of Americans support the use of drone attacks abroad on suspected terrorists. But only 41 percent support the program when the suspected terrorists on foreign soil are US citizens. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed that four US citizens have been killed abroad by drones, though only one of them, Anwar al-Awlaki, was specifically targeted. Support for the use of drones in the US against suspected terrorists is even lower – 25 percent overall, and only 13 percent if the suspect is a US citizen.

In his speech, Obama returned to the issue of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, which still houses 166 detainees, 103 of whom are on a hunger strike. In his first presidential campaign, Obama pledged to close the detention center, also known as Gitmo, but has been constrained by several factors, including Congress.

On Thursday, Obama called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo, and announced he is appointing a new, senior envoy at the departments of State and Defense whose sole job is to transfer detainees to third countries. The president also lifted the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so that they can be reviewed case by case.

“Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system,” Obama said. “And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”

Some detainees cannot be prosecuted, because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law, he said. But he expressed confidence that this “legacy problem” can be resolved.

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