FORT MCNAIR, Washington, D.C. -- Faced with growing questions over the legality and scope of his counterrorism policy from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama said Thursday that he has codified the process his administration goes through before launching a drone strike.
Nevertheless, he gave an impassioned defense of drone strikes in countries such as Somalia and Yemen as an essential counterterrorism tool, presenting them as the best possible option.
"To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance," Obama said. "For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power –- or risk abusing it. That’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists -– insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday."
Speaking at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., Obama offered a wide-ranging view of his vision for the future of U.S. national security policy. He spoke of returning to his plan to close the military detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, renewing the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and adjusting to an environment where homegrown terrorists pose more of a threat than an organized 9/11-style attack.
"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," Obama said.
He argued the government's lethal strikes were essential and had prevented numerous attacks from taking place.
"Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield," he said. "Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives."
"Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," he added.
Of the civilians who have died in the strikes, Obama said: "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."
He indicated he was open to working with Congress on imposing additional oversight on the drone program, including proposals for a special secret court to review strikes or an independent entity within the executive branch.
"Going forward, I have asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress," he said.
Human rights groups said moving toward a smaller, more transparent drone program would be a positive step, but called on the president to do more.
"The president still claims broad authority to carry out target killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "We continue to disagree fundamentally with the idea that due process requirements can be satisfied without any form of judicial oversight by regular federal courts."
Under increased pressure for the Justice Department’s decision to obtain phone records for several journalists from the Associated Press, Obama also asked Congress to pass a law that would protect the press.
"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law," he said. "That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach"
As part of Obama's push to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo, the administration will soon begin transferring detainees to Yemen. But finding a way to close those facilities entirely, one senior administration official acknowledged, was the "most difficult piece of the puzzle."
"Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions," he said. "I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries."
At one point, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin heckled the president after he started speaking about Guantanamo. "I'm willing to cut that young lady interrupting me some slack, because it's worth being passionate about," he said. For several minutes, Benjamin intermittently questioned the president before being escorted from the event.
One Guantanamo critic said the measure didn't go far enough. "It's great rhetoric, but the devil is in the details," said Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo who is running a petition to close the facility, to HuffPost. "It was disappointing to hear him say he was just going to pick up the second-rate military commissions process."
Obama's counterterrorism policy, while not seriously challenged in the 2012 election by Republican nominee Mitt Romney, has come under criticism from Congress. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched a 13-hour filibuster decrying the president's approach to civil liberties. A hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay has grown to over 100 prisoners. Thirty of them are being force fed, which the United Nations considers torture.
Obama addressed the force-feeding Thursday. "Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?" he asked.
Nearly 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent war on terror, Obama said at some point, it would end. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands," he said.
The day before Obama’s speech, the United States formally acknowledged it had killed four U.S. citizens in drone strikes. But just one of the U.S. citizens killed by their own country was specifically targeted, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter to Congress. The administration, Holder wrote, has "specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi" and killed three other U.S. citizens -- Samir Khan, Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi and Jude Kenan Mohammed -- who “were not specifically targeted by the United States.”
One of those citizens, Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, the son of Anwar, was just 16.
Holder's disclosure could have implications for the law underpinning the drone campaign, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which Congress passed shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Defense Department officials argued during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that the 2001 law might be necessary for another 10 to 20 years and could be used to send troops anywhere from Syria to Boston.
Some senators seemed upset by the Obama administration's interpretation of the war powers law. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), for one, called it "astoundingly disturbing" and said the Defense Department officials "have essentially rewritten the Constitution."
In his speech Obama acknowledged those concerns, saying that he doesn't want to get "drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states."
"So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate," he said. "And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end."
This story has been updated with further information from Obama's speech.