President Obama is delivering a major speech today designed to fulfill a promise in his State of the Union address in January to make elements of his controversial counterterrorism policies more transparent and accountable to Congress and the American public. Obama is also under pressure to explain how he intends to make even modest progress on other priorities that were centerpieces of foreign policy plans he made at the beginning of his first term. At the top of that list is closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, where 103 of the 166 detainees still in custody are on a hunger strike.
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Obama winds up his counterterrorism speech with a paean to those who have endured terrorism and taken action.
“That’s who the American people are,” he says, quoting a runner after the Boston Marathon bombing. “Determined, and not to be messed with.”
“Now, we need a strategy," Obama said, "and a politics that reflects this resilient spirit.”
Peter Finn reports:
Obama says he will lift the moratorium on transferring detainees home to Yemen, which he imposed after the failed attempt to bomb a commercial plane over Detroit in 2009. There are at least 84 Yemenis at Guantanamo, and 56 of them have been cleared for transfer. In all there are currently 166 detainees at Guantanamo.
Obama mentions but doesn’t say exactly what he will do with the toughest subset of detainees at Guantanamo: those deemed too dangerous to release but who can’t be prosecuted in either federal court or a military tribunal because of a lack of court-worthy evidence or evidence that has been compromised.
“I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” says Obama.
From Craig Whitlock:
While President Obama focused on the legality and morality of drone strikes, he did not comment on a expansion in drone surveillance and spying that has taken place outside of the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under Obama, the U.S. military has established unarmed drone bases in Turkey, Ethiopia, the Seychelles and Niger -- locations from which the flying robots conduct regional spying missions around the clock.
The Defense Department also expanded the number of surveillance drone flights from Djibouti (on the Horn of Africa), Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It's a safe bet that more U.S. drone bases will take root in other spots on the globe in the coming years.
Peter Finn and Karen DeYoung report:
Obama is being heckled as he addresses the issue of Guantanamo. He is repeatedly interrupted by a woman in the audience demanding that he keep his promise to shut down the facility. “You can close it today,” she says.
“Why don’t you sit down,” says Obama to woman. “You should let me finish my sentence.”
The woman continues to speak at Obama. “I love my country,” she says.
“I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about,” Obama ad-libs. “Is this who we are?” Congress has refused to allow Guantanamo prisoners to be transferred to this country for trial. Obama says he is going to ask Congress to approve a new facility in this country to try them in military tribunals.
The woman is still shouting.
Those of us watching online can’t see who she is, or whether any efforts are being made to stop her interruptions. Obama takes the high road, incorporating her remarks into his own.
“I’m going off script, as you may have expected…The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
While he said he disagreed with much of what she said, and “obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said,” Obama notes, he acknowledges that “these are tough issues.”
Obama gives a shout-out to foreign aid, the oft-ignored stepchild of national security policy.
Using force “everywhere that a radical ideology takes root…will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.
“We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred,” he says, but “we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship — because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears.”
The Post's Peter Finn reports:
Obama says the Guantanamo Bay detention facility “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He notes it costs $150 million a year to house the 166 detainees there and another $200 million is needed for upgrades to the military detention facility if it is kept open.
The president says congressional restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo “make no sense” and notes that President Bush moved out more than 500 detainees and Sen. John McCain, his Republican opponent in 2008, was in favor of closing the military detention facility in Cuba.
From Greg Miller:
Amid calls on Capitol Hill for an update to the 2001 law that authorized the United States to pursue al-Qaeda and associated groups, President Obama said he’s willing to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the law -- known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force -- but won’t sign any law that would expand its scope.
The issue has become more important as al-Qaeda has splintered into smaller, scattered groups – many of which have little or no direct link to the organization that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Senior lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have described the law as woefully outdated. But military officials have argued against making any changes. Obama’s statement makes clear he doesn’t want to be remembered as a president who expanded what his predecessor called the war on terrorism.
The Post's Sari Horwitz reports:
President Obama addressed the uproar over his administration’s numerous leak investigations by saying he is “troubled” by the possibility that leak investigations by his administration might “chill” investigative journalism.
The president has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters. As part of the review, Holder will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns. The president said he has directed Holder to report back to him by July 12.
The president’s comments come a week after it was revealed that the Justice Department, in a sweeping and unusual move, secretly obtained two months’ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year.
“As Commander-in-Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field,” Obama said in his speech. “To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. That’s who we are.”
The president also called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against “government over-reach.”
“Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” Obama said. “Our focus must be on those who break the law.”
From Craig Whitlock:
Obama shed no light on how many drone strikes he has ordered, nor did he make mention of how the Pentagon's drone fleet has expanded greatly in size during his time in office.
As of last month, according to a submission provided to Congress, the Defense Department had 235 MQ-1 Predator drones in its inventory, along with 100 MQ-9 Reapers and 44 MQ-5 Hunters. Those are the three models of medium-altitude drones that can be armed with missiles or other munitions used in airstrikes.
The CIA won't say how many drones are in its fleet.
Just because drone attacks are legal and effective, Obama says, doesn’t mean they are “wise and moral in every instance.” He has moved into explaining the Presidential Policy Guidance signed Thursday, the long-awaited “playbook” of guidelines and processes for targeted killing. The document is classified.
Under its provisions, he says, “the use of drones is heavily constrained.” The explanation for that is largely what the administration has said in previous speeches—a preference for capture, requirements for consultations with partners, strikes taken not to punish for past actions but to prevent future attacks.
Obama’s explanation of civilian casualties, however, is the most extensive yet given. “Before any strike is taken,” he says, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured--"the highest standard we can set.” Previous standards, according to senior administration officials, have rested largely on a formula that gauged the value of a target against the amount of possible collateral damage.
Acknowledging that criticism of drone strikes “understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties,” Obama describes a “wide gap” between non-governmental estimates of thousands of civilians and far lower internal government figures.
“Nevertheless,” he says, “it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars.”
But his job is to “weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives,” Obama says. Failure to act would result in more casualties, in the United States and abroad, he says.
The Post's Craig Whitlock reports:
The Air Force will be pleased to hear that Obama referred to drones as "remotely piloted aircraft," which is its preferred terminology for the flying robots. That's in contrast to the Army, which refers to drones as "unmanned aircraft systems," or the Navy, which generally calls them "unmanned aerial vehicles."
Air Force officials argue that describing drones as "unmanned" is misleading and pejorative. Drones still have pilots and crews -- they just operate the aircraft by remote control, usually from thousands of miles away.
As for the controversial question of whether the Pentagon should award combat decorations to drone pilots, Obama had nothing to say in this speech.
The Post's Greg Miller reports:
Obama’s defense of the accuracy of the drone campaign may be undercut to some extent by the information his administration released Wednesday on the killing of four Americans, only one of whom was intentionally targeted.
Obama repeated the administration claim that there is a “wide gap between U.S. assessments” of civilian casualties and those compiled by outside groups. The claim has triggered criticism of the way the United States has measured civilian casualties, broadly counting military-aged males within the radius of a strike as legitimate targets.
In a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed for the first time that four U.S. citizens have been killed in strikes over the past four years, but that only U.S.-born cleric and al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki was “specifically targeted.” The others, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, “were not specifically targeted by the United States.”
Still in familiar territory, Obama insists the United States in not involved in a “boundless ‘global war on terror,’” and says he is most interested in acting in partnership with other countries, sharing intelligence and arresting terrorists.
“But despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed.” Nor can Special Forces be deployed in every instance to capture targets, as they did with Osama bin Laden, he said.
“It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associate forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” Obama says. The technology, he acknowledges, “raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why;about civilian casualties,and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality…under U.S. and international law;about accountability and morality.”
And now to the answers to those questions.
Touching on the politically sensitive question of whether al-Qaeda has been “decimated,” as he has said several times in the past, Obama now describes “core al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan and Pakistan as “on a path to defeat.”
The threat today, he said “is more diffuse” and comes from what the administration has called al-Qaeda “associates” and “affiliates.” Some legal scholars and lawmakers have questioned whether presidential authorities to attack al-Qaeda with drone strikes and otherwise extend beyond the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
But “associates” such as Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and homegrown extremists are “the future of terrorism,” Obama said, and must be dealt with “smartly and proportionally.”
From the Post's Greg Miller:
Obama’s speech amounts to a case that U.S. counter-terrorism operations are now out of proportion to a threat that has diminished to pre-Sept. 11, 2001 levels.
He outlines a policy that is likely to slow the drone campaign further than it has already, but appears to include carve-outs that will reduce but not eliminate the CIA’s role, as well as the reliance, at least in Pakistan, on controversial so-called “signature strikes.”
In Afghanistan, Obama says, “we will continue to take strikes against high value al-Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.”
Obama has started speaking at the National Defense University, standing before a long line of American flags.
“Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,” he said, “but having fought [for] our independence, we know that a price must be paid for freedom.” After relating the nation’s long history of warfare, he has arrived at Sept. 11, 2001. Some of the measures adopted in response, he said “compromised our basic values.”
“After I took office,” Obama said, “we stepped up the war against al-Qaeda, but also sought to change its course,” ending torture and the war in Iraq and working “to align our policies with the rule of law.”
And on to the meat of his remarks. “This is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions—about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.”
President Obama is expected to outline the future of his counter-terrorism polices in a speech that seeks to more clearly define the American enemy, make lethal government actions more accountable to Congress, and signal that the nation’s long war against al Qaeda will one day end.
In a lengthy speech that he is is giving at the National Defense University, Obama is expected to call again for Congress to help close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an early promise he has yet to fulfill.
He plans to announce that he would lift the moratorium on transferring Guantanamo’s Yemeni detainees back to their home country, among other steps to help thin out the prison’s population of 166 people, many of them now on a hunger strike.
For the second straight day and the third time in one week, IRS officials will testify Wednesday in front of Congress about the agency's improper targeting of conservative groups.
Highlighting today's House Oversight Committee hearing is IRS official Lois Lerner's decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not answer questions. Lerner is still under subpoena to testify, meaning she will have to invoke her rights in person -- and likely repeatedly.
Also appearing is Douglas Shulman, the former IRS commissioner who also testified in front of a Senate committee on Tuesday. Rounding out the witnesses are the inspector general who investigated the wrongdoing -- J. Russell George -- and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin, who learned of the investigation into the IRS's targeting last summer.
Stay tuned below for live updates on the key moments.