President Barack Obama has defended his country’s controversial drone attacks as legal, effective and a necessary tool in an evolving US counterterrorism policy.
Addressing an audience at the National Defence University on Thursday, he acknowledged the targeted strikes are no “cure-all” and said he is haunted by the civilians unintentionally killed.
Obama framed his speech as an attempt to redefine the nature and scope of terror threats facing the US, noting the weakening of al-Qaeda and the impending end of the US war in Afghanistan.
“So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and the scope of the struggle, or else it will define us,” said Obama, saying that threats to diplomatic facilities must be dealt with as well as “homegrown extremists”.
His speech came a day after his administration revealed for the first time that a fourth American citizen had been killed in secretive drone strikes abroad.
The speech also reaffirmed Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects have been held.
Obama said the US is is committed to “capturing terrorist suspects” and prosecuting them, but that “The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay”.
“When I ran for president the first time, John McCain supported closing Gitmo. No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons in the United States,” said Obama.
“Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism-related offences, including some who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees….there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” said the president, who was heckled by a person in the audience on the issue of forcefeeding hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Indeed, he was interrupted repeatedly by a woman who shouted “I love my country, I love the rule of law. The drones are making us less safe”.
The White House said on Wednesday that Obama’s speech coincided with the signing of new “presidential policy guidance” on when the US can use drone strikes.
Drafts of the guidance reviewed by counterterrorism officials gave control of drone strikes outside Pakistan and Yemen to the US military, enshrining into policy what is already common practice, according to two US officials briefed on the proposed changes.
The military and the CIA currently work side by side in Yemen, with the CIA flying its drones over the northern region out of a covert base in Saudi Arabia, and the military flying its unmanned aerial vehicles from Djibouti.