Obama defends drone strikes

President Obama on Thursday defended his administration's aggressive use of drone strikes in the war on terror, even as he announced steps that could reduce reliance on the program.

In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said the U.S. drones program was legal and argued strikes had been effective in fighting extremists who launched the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

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"We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first," Obama said. "So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense."

HillTube video: Breaking down Obama's speech


But Obama also announced he had approved and declassified a set of guidelines governing the use of drone strikes that would authorize a strike only when there is a “continuing and imminent threat” that other governments cannot address.

And he said the end of the war in Afghanistan and U.S. success in the fight against al Queda was likely to reduce the use of drones.


Obama delivered the address after months of bipartisan criticism of the drone program. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised questions about the legal basis for the program, as well as the use of drones to kill American citizens.

A day before his speech, the administration acknowledged that four U.S. citizens have been killed in drone strikes.

The president also outlined new actions designed to hasten the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, argued that the amorphous “war on terror” should be redefined as a focused effort against a specific terror network and addressed outrage over government targeting in leak probes.

"We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," Obama said.

Obama’s speech is likely to rekindle fights over the war on terrorism, with some questioning whether the decision on drones will weaken the country’s fight against terrorism.

On Guantanamo, Obama has been criticized from the left for failing to fulfill his promise to close the camp, and a recent prisoner hunger strike has raised new questions about the long-term implications of and plan for the facility. A protestor interrupted Obama's speech while he was discussing the prison.

Obama again reiterated his call on Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers.

"There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," Obama said to some applause from the audience.

The president is ordering the Department of Defense to identify a new site within the United States to hold military commissions, as well as appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and a new senior official at the Pentagon to oversee detainee transfers back to their home countries. 

Obama will also announce a lifting of the moratorium on detainee transfer to Yemen, and stressed that the hunger strike illustrated that the continued status quo at Guantanamo was problematic.

"Given my Administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," Obama said.

GOP lawmakers before Obama’s speech began criticized the decision to send some detainees back to Yemen, where they could rejoin the fight against the U.S.

Obama said he too is "troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable."

Obama said he raised the concerns with Attorney General Eric Holder, who agreed to review Justice Department guidelines governing leak investigations. Holder will also meet with media organizations and issue a report on press investigations by July 12.

Members of both parties have questioned the Justice Department’s aggressive actions to go after reporters and editors in its pursuit of national security leaks. Justice labeled a reporter from Fox News as a criminal co-conspirator in one legal document.

On drones, the president's new guidelines dictate strikes only will be used when there is a “near certainty that civilians won't be injured,” and will only target Al Qaeda and affiliated terror networks. Obama also expressed his desire that drone operations be shifted to the Pentagon from the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The preference is that the US military has the lead for the use of force . . . beyond Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said in advance of Obama’s speech.

Moreover, Obama administration officials signaled they would be open to creating a new agency within the executive branch or launching a new federal court to oversee armed drone operations.

The court would be patterned after the patterned after the intelligence oversight responsibilities under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA). Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman and Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) pushed for the creation of that kind of court earlier this year.

If approved, the FISA-like authority for drone operations would allow lawmakers to directly address some of the perceived problems with the program, without dealing with the issues of classification surrounding the program.

The president also demanded that Congress approve greater funding for embassy security, spurred by Republican outrage over the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. Republicans have suggested that the Obama Administration was unprepared for the Sept. 11 attack and attempted to deliberately obfuscate terrorist involvement for political gain.

Obama said the additional funding would "bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges."