WASHINGTON * On Thursday, President Barack Obama defended
America's controversial drone attacks as legal, effective and a
necessary linchpin in an evolving U.S. counterterrorism policy. But
he acknowledged that the targeted strikes are no "cure-all" and said
he was haunted by the civilians unintentionally killed.
The president also announced a renewed push to close the
Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, including lifting a freeze
on prisoner transfers to Yemen. However, shutting the prison will
still require help from Republicans reluctant to back Obama's call
to move some detainees to U.S. prisons and try them in civilian
Obama framed his address as an attempt to redefine the nature and
scope of terrorist threats facing the U.S., noting the weakening of
al-Qaida and the impending end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
"Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of
terror," Obama said in remarks at the National Defense University.
"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
Since taking office, Obama's counterterrorism strategy has
increasingly relied on the use of strikes by spy drones,
particularly in Pakistan and Yemen. The highly secretive program has
faced criticism from congressional lawmakers who have questioned its
scope and legality.
The president, in his most expansive public discussion on drones,
defended their targeted killings as both effective and legal. He
acknowledged the civilian deaths that sometimes result a
consequence that has angered many of the countries where the U.S.
seeks to combat extremism and said he grappled with that trade-
"For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will
haunt us as long as we live," he said. Before any strike, he said,
"there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or
injured the highest standard we can set."
Ahead of the address, Obama signed new "presidential policy
guidelines" aimed at illustrating more clearly to Congress and the
public the standards the U.S. applies before carrying out drone
attacks. Officials said the guidelines include not using strikes
when the targeted people can be captured, either by the United
States or a foreign government; relying on drones only when the
target poses an "imminent" threat; and establishing a preference for
giving the military control of the drone program.
However, the CIA is still expected to maintain control of the
drone program in Yemen, as well as in Pakistan's tribal areas, given
the concern that al-Qaida may return in greater numbers as U.S.
troops draw down in Afghanistan. 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 unstaffed aerial vehicles from Djibouti.
In Pakistan alone, as many as 3,336 people have been killed by
drones since 2003, according to the New America Foundation, which
maintains a database of the strikes.
Obama's advisers said the new guidelines will in effect limit the
number of drone strikes in terrorist zones and pointed to a future
decline of attacks against extremists in Afghanistan as the war
there winds down next year. …