WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced plans Thursday that could lead to the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and justified his administration’s use of drone strikes to kill terrorists abroad as effective, lawful and critical to national security.
In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said the U.S. is at a “crossroads” of national security issues with a diffuse array of terrorist threats that require a new approach and a recasting of a war on terror.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery.“Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”
In his first counter terrorism speech of his second term, Obama pledged to make drone attacks more transparent and said they’ll be conducted only against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”
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He elaborated on a recent call to close Guantanamo, calling it a stain against the U.S. reputation.
He said he’d lift a moratorium on transfers of Yemenis back to their homeland from Guantánamo, and review their cases one by one, a key step to starting to empty the prison. About 90 captives are Yemeni, and 56 have been approved for transfer.
He also called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers, said he’s asked the Department of Defense to find a site in the United States for military commissions and said he’d appoint a senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department to transfer detainees to third countries.
He acknowledged a tough fight to close the detention center. But, he added, “imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
Obama ordered a halt to repatriations to Yemen after the 2009 Christmas Day attempt to bomb an aircraft as it was landing in Detroit after a flight from Amsterdam.
The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, told U.S. investigators that he had been recruited for the mission in Yemen by U.S.-born al Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was subsequently killed by a U.S. drone strike.
But the decision to lift the moratorium reflects recognition that Yemen’s new president, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, is a “willing and increasingly able partner,” said an administration official who briefed reporters ahead of Obama’s speech.
The speech came a day after Attorney General Eric Holder officially notified Congress that four Americans have died in U.S. drone strikes since 2009, though it only sought to justify Awlaki’s targeting, acknowledging indirectly that the other three had been killed accidently.
Obama acknowledged the strikes have caused civilian deaths, saying they haunt his administration, but that “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold.”
The speech was part of Obama’s pledge to develop a new “legal architecture” for targeted killings amid an intense outcry by civil and human rights groups, some lawmakers and foreign governments that charged that drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and violate U.S. and international law.
Obama said the drone strikes have been effective and have “saved lives.”
And he said the U.S. is acting within the law and that his administration has worked over the past four years to develop guidelines and oversight.
“The use of drones is heavily constrained,” he said. “America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them.”
The administration insists that it only targets confirmed “senior operational leaders” of al Qaida and associated forces involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who are plotting imminent violent attacks on the United States.
However, a McClatchy review published in April of top-secret U.S. intelligence reports showed that the CIA killed hundreds of lower-level suspected Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other militants” in scores of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal area during the height of the operations in 2010-11.