President Barack Obama outlined new regulations for drone strikes and reiterated his desire to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay in a wide-ranging speech about the future of American national security.
President Obama’s speech, which was delivered at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., examined how the United States can replace the post-9/11 mentality that has dominated the War on Terror with a more holistic, comprehensive national defense strategy that will allow the United States “to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” To that end, Obama called for targeted action against terrorists, increased diplomatic engagement and foreign aid programs, and the shuttering of Guantánamo.
The president strongly defended his administration’s use of targeted drone strikes, citing the words of al Qaeda leaders — including Osama bin Laden — to make the case that “our actions are effective.”
“Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” Obama said.
Obama also directly confronted criticisms over the civilian casualties associated with the controversial program. While he insisted that “for me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live,” he also urged Americans to consider the extreme costs of deploying American troops abroad or letting terrorists go unchecked.
“By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” Obama insisted.
The president pushed back against the notion that the drone strike program is unconstitutional, saying “America’s actions are legal” under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) joint resolution passed by Congress on September 14, 2001. He also pointed out that “I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action” since becoming president, noting that the White House has briefed Congress on every drone strike carried out during his administration. Still, he acknowledged that greater oversight is needed in the future.
“Going forward, I have asked my administration to review proposals” including the creation of a special court or independent oversight board “to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress,” Obama said.
Obama also pushed back against those who have suggested that the president could use drones at will within the United States, saying, “For the record, I do not believe it would be Constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process.” He did carve out an exception for terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki, however, saying “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America” and is in a position where the United States cannot capture him alive, “his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
The president dedicated a large portion of his speech to making the case for closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay – a campaign promise from 2008 that has so far gone unfulfilled. Calling the facility a “glaring exception” to America’s record of prosecuting terrorists whenever possible, Obama declared that “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?” Obama asked. “Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
To replace the detention center, Obama said he has asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where military commissions can be held, and announced that he will appoint a new senior envoy who will oversee the transfer of detainees to other countries. Obama also promised that “where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
During the Guantánamo Bay portion of his speech, Obama was repeatedly interrupted by a heckler from the left-wing activist group Code Pink. Although Obama appeared annoyed by the interruptions, he defended the woman’s right to speak. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me and much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
Overall, Obama made the case for ending the post-9/11 mentality that has dominated the national security debate since the day of the attacks. “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” Obama said. “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.”
A transcript of Obama’s speech, as prepared for delivery, can be read here.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster