President Obama will deliver a speech Thursday at the National Defense University in which he will address how he intends to bring his counterterrorism policies, including the drone program and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in line with the legal framework he promised after taking office.
A White House official, speaking Saturday on the condition of anonymity to describe the speech in advance, said Obama will “discuss our broad counterterrorism policy, including our military, diplomatic, intelligence and legal efforts.”
“He will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as the al-Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged,” the official said. “He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones. And he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama said he would “continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” The speech Thursday is meant to be his first step in fulfilling that pledge.
The address will serve as a second-term bookend to his National Archives speech in 2009, when he argued that U.S. national security interests do not have to conflict with the country’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
Since then, though, Obama has found it difficult at times to balance his counterterrorism policies with the values he has said are essential to restoring the U.S. image abroad.
He will deliver the speech amid criticism over the Justice Department’s move to secretly obtain the phone records of Associated Press journalists as part of a federal investigation into national security leaks within the administration.
Obama was prepared to deliver the speech earlier this month, but it was put off amid mounting concerns over a prisoner hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay and more recently the Justice Department leaks investigation — both of which the revised speech may address.
A former constitutional law lecturer, Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to restore the rule of law to American national security policy in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era. Days after taking office, he banned the use of harsh interrogation techniques that critics said amounted to torture and ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But his record in achieving that goal has been inconsistent.
Although torture is no longer allowed in U.S. interrogations, the military brig at Guantanamo still holds 166 prisoners, more than half of whom are now on a hunger strike to protest conditions. Obama said last month that he would try again to close Guantanamo, despite enduring congressional opposition.
Also concerning many human rights and civil liberties groups has been Obama’s significant expansion of the drone program, including the first killing of a U.S. citizen with an unmanned aircraft without charge or trial. Obama approved the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American cleric affiliated with al-Qaeda, in 2011.
As Obama continues to wind down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in advance of next year’s end-of-combat operations, the drone program is becoming an even more important part of the administration’s counterterrorism policy in the region.
Obama has used it to keep pressure on al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and, more recently, in Yemen. But the program is rarely acknowledged publicly by the administration, and Obama has said that he must do more to explain the legal underpinnings of drone use.
The White House official said Obama has used “all tools of national power in an aggressive campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda.” The official noted that he has also “insisted that we enlist our values in this fight and act in line with the rule of law.”
In the Thursday speech, the official said, “he will frame the future of our efforts against al-Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents.”
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