WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama on Thursday defended his administration’s use of drone strikes to kill terrorists as effective, lawful and “heavily constrained,” but he also appeared to be laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeted killings.
In remarks at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama cast the use of such operations as a necessary part of an overall national defense strategy, even as he acknowledged targeted killings risk “creating new enemies” and could “lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”
He said the United States is at a crossroads of national security issues with an array of terrorist threats that require a recasting of a war on terror.
“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” Obama said, contending that the threat of large-scale attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has faded as al-Qaida has been weakened, but that threats like the Boston Marathon bombing and attacks in Benghazi remain. “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.”
As part of that, he renewed a first-term campaign promise to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, announcing that he’d lift a ban on detainee transfers to Yemen — homeland of half of the 166 captives at the detention facility.
The speech served to counter critics who say the drone program has been bathed in secrecy, as Obama offered more details on when the United States will deploy drone strikes.
But Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed “lethal actions” in apparent anticipation of an overhaul of the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaida and allied groups that supported the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed “senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces” plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.
But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. The previous wording also was absent from a fact sheet distributed by the White House.
The fact sheet said that those who can be killed must pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to “U.S. persons,” setting no geographic limits. Previous administration statements have referred to imminent threats to the United States — the homeland or its interests.
“They appear to be broadening the potential target set,” said Christopher Swift, an international legal expert who teaches national security studies at Georgetown University and closely follows the targeted killing issue.
Obama was interrupted three times by a woman from the anti-war group Code Pink, who appeared to be protesting both the drone program and the Guantanamo prison.
The president said at one point that he was willing to “cut the young lady some slack” because the issues he was addressing were worth being passionate about.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.