Obama Reframes Counterterrorism Policy with New Rules on Drones

May 23, 2013 2:18 PM

In a major address Thursday President Barack Obama sought to reframe his counterterrorism strategy saying that “America is at a crossroads.”

“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison's warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” he declared in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

As part of that effort, the president announced more narrow parameters for the use of drones to kill terrorists overseas and limit collateral casualties and he reiterated his pledge to renew efforts to persuade Congress to agree to close the Guantanamo detention site in Cuba where 110 terrorist suspects are being held.

He said he would appoint a new envoy at the State Department and an official at the Defense Department who will attempt to negotiate transfers of Guantanamo detainees to other countries. And he said he is lifting the moratorium on some detainee transfers.

He said, “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. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries."

He said that much had changed since the attacks on Sept 11, 2001. “The threat today is more diffuse, with Al Qaeda's affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP -the most active in plotting against our homeland. While none of AQAP's efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.”

So he said, “As we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”

He said that the current threat is often from “deranged or alienated individuals - often U.S. citizens or legal residents - can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.”

He also said he is narrowing the cases in which his administration will use remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to kill suspected al Qaida terrorists.

In discussing his drone strategy he expressed remorse over the innocent people who had been killed. “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

On Guantanamo, Obama said he is lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen that he imposed in 2010 after it was revealed that Detroit “underwear bomber” Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab was trained in Yemen.

The defense spending bill Obama signed into law last year prohibits any transfers to the United States of any detainee at Guantanamo who was held there on or before Jan. 20, 2009, the day Obama became president.

And the law sets a very high legal bar for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to transfer a detainee to his country of origin, or to any other foreign country.

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