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President Obama counterterrorism policy update

1:26 PM, May 23, 2013   |    comments
President Barack Obama. (Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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David Jackson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - In a sweeping speech about the future of counter-terrorism, President Obama outlined new rules Thursday for overseas drone strikes and revamped efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The president discussed Afghanistan, Benghazi, and ongoing investigations of national security news leaks, while questioning the concept of the "global war on terror" that has prevailed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today's threats, and how we should confront them," Obama said during his speech at National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

MORE: President heckled over Gitmo

The president spent much of his long speech on two counterterrorism projects that have drawn sharp attacks from civil libertarians, drone strikes and the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Under a new set of rules he signed this week, Obama said drone attacks will be confined to known terrorists. "Before any strike is taken," he said, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- he highest standard we can set."

The speech came a day after the Obama administration revealed that drone strikes have killed four Americans, all terrorist suspects, in counterterrorism operations since 2009. Obama defended the plan to "take out" American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, saying "he was continually trying to kill people."

Obama also defended drone strikes, saying they "have saved lives" by eliminating terrorists, and are a legal part of a "just war" against their organizations.

There have been civilian casualties that "haunt" him, Obama said, but that risk must be balanced against the threat from terrorist groups that are specifically targeting civilians.

"Doing nothing is not an option," he said.

The president also stressed that members of Congress have been apprised of every drone strike, and that he is open to the possibility of some sort of independent oversight, such as a special court or a review panel.

In describing his plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Obama said he is lifting his own moratorium of transferring detainees to Yemen. He also said a new State Department official will be appointed to talk with other nations about taking in prisoners.

Obama had pledged to close the facility during his first year in office. But his efforts ran afoul of congressional Republicans who opposed trials of terrorism suspects in the United States, and of other countries that refused to take some prisoners.

Some detainees at the prison, meanwhile, are in the midst of a hunger strike, protesting their conditions.

In his speech, Obama called on Congress to lift some of those restrictions, and to establish a facility in the United States for detention and military trials of some Gitmo suspects.

Obama won applause from the crowd when he said, "there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened."

The Gitmo discussion also drew the shouts of at least one protester, forcing Obama at one point to say: "Let me finish."

Obama later said the woman's protests reflected the fact that "these are tough issues."

The speech featured a number of presidential demands of Congress, including more money for security of U.S. facilities overseas. The proposal flows from the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. building in Benghazi that killed for Americans, including ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

Congressional Republicans are investigating the Obama administration over Benghazi, claiming officials tried to cover up the involvement of a terrorist organization and were unprepared for such an attack.

Obama, meanwhile, urged Congress to approve a federal "shield law" that would help reporters protect confidential sources. The proposal stems from a Justice Department seizure of records from the Associated Press and Fox News in connection with investigations of news leaks.

Obama said he respects the need for investigative journalism because it helps hold government accountable. calling it a vital part of democracy. He also said the government has to strike a balance between press freedom and the need to protect national security secrets.

In the meantime, Obama said he asked Attorney General Eric Holder to review the Justice Department guidelines on investigations that involve reporters. Holder is scheduled to report back to the president by July 12.

While Obama did not call predecessor George W. Bush by name, he did criticize some Bush counter-terrorism proposals, including treatment of detainees and what he called "torture." Obama said his administration changed many of those policies, and has improved its relations with other nations, particularly in the Muslim world.

The threat of terrorism still exists, Obama said, citing Benghazi, the April bombings at the Boston Marathon and the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.

But the nature of the terrorist threat has changed since 9/11, Obama said.

While the al-Qaeda organization that carried out that attack has been severely damaged -- including the death of leader Osama bin Laden during a U.S-led raid into Pakistan in 2011 -- new threats come from al-Qaeda affiliates, localized extremist groups and home-grown terrorists.

Fighting these kinds of threats requires more than military action and law enforcement, he said, citing better diplomacy with other nations, intelligence sharing, more foreign aid and efforts to seek peace in the Middle East.

"Force alone cannot make us safe," Obama said.

These changes have made the 2001 war authorization that Congress passed after 9/11 nearly obsolete, Obama said, and he said lawmakers should eventually repeal it.

"Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," Obama said. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

In many ways, Obama's national security speech was a follow-up to his Feb. 12 State of the Union Address in which he pledged to be more open regarding his counterterrorism policies.

That night, Obama said that "in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with 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."


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