Obama to address drones, Gitmo in defense policy speech

President Obama is slated to lay out his administration’s legal justification for using drones against terrorists in a speech on Thursday.

Obama is expected to use the speech at the National Defense University to delve into many of the details of his counter-terrorism strategy, including diplomatic and intelligence efforts as well as his blocked attempts to close Guantanamo Bay, according to a White House official.

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The official, sharing the information on-background, said on Sunday that the president’s remarks are an effort to hold true to the pledge he made to lawmakers in his State of the Union to “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 use of drones by American military and CIA officials to attack terrorists began under President George W. Bush, but Obama has increased the use of the armed, unmanned, aerial vehicles dramatically largely in the Middle East to target people his administration suspects are carrying out acts of terrorism.

Obama’s move next Thursday to speak publicly about the government’s use of drones — especially to kill American citizens who are suspected of carrying out acts of terror against the U.S. while overseas — follows a series of controversial interactions between his administration and Congress over the issue.

In a speech at Northwestern University last year, Attorney General Holder first laid out the administration’s justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad.

He said that the government’s definition of a person who posed an “imminent threat” consisted of three criteria: there was a limited open window for attacking the person, a grave possible harm that not attacking the target could have on U.S. civilians, and a strong likelihood that targeting the person would head off a future attack against the United States.

Concern over the government’s targeting of U.S. citizens abroad first came to a head in 2011, when it was revealed that U.S. officials targeted and killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike. 

Al-Awlaki was widely known for inciting attacks against the United States, such as the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting, the thwarted “underwear” bombing of a U.S.-bound plane the same year and the failed Times Square bombing in 2010.

The administration has laid its legal justification in a detailed series of memos through its Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Earlier this year NBC leaked a white paper from the administration on the topic that gave an abbreviated version of the justification.

While members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were shown copies of all the OLC memos, House and Senate Judiciary Committee members were not.

Both Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) threatened to subpoena the administration for access to the memos before the White House finally agreed to share them. They have still not been shared with the public.

Amid the backdrop of that swirling controversy, a final Senate vote on CIA Director John Brennan's confirmation was delayed in March by senators who asked for more information about the U.S. drone program.

And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made headlines as he delivered a 13-hour talking filibuster to thwart the vote until the administration told him that it could not legally kill U.S. citizens on American soil using a drone strike, which the White House ultimately did.

On Thursday, Obama is expected to address his administration’s use of drones in the context of his broad counter-terrorism policy, while reviewing the degree to which al Qaeda has been weakened as a result and addressing new terror threats that have arisen.