Obama used the first major counterterrorism address of his second term to outline newly narrowed guidelines that call for deploying drones only against targets that pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States and only in cases in which avoiding civilian casualties is a “near-certainty.”
“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
In a long, wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama used the depiction of a diminished threat environment to make the case for broad counterterrorism changes, including closing the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and finding a U.S. site where military commission trials can be held for eligible detainees.
Among steps to help thin the detention center’s population of 166, many of whom are on a hunger strike, he called for an end to congressional restrictions on transfers for those cleared to leave and said he is lifting his own moratorium on the repatriation of several dozen Yemeni prisoners.
But even while declaring that “this war, like all wars, must end,” Obama made clear that other pieces of the nation’s counterterrorism apparatus will remain in place, including targeted killings with drones. He made no mention of ending the CIA’s involvement in the drone campaign.
Obama’s remarks followed a pledge in his State of the Union address in January to make his counterterrorism policies — particularly about drones — more transparent and accountable to Congress and the American public.
Congressional responses ran the gamut. “The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the speech went further in describing the president’s vision of how the country should counter a diminished terrorist threat than it did in delineating how it will go about doing so.
“It seemed like the administration is using a two-tiered approach,” Schiff said. “A public speech to set up a broad idea that we’re at a crossroads. And at the same time, a more private track which changes the criteria and adds restrictions to the drone program.”