Obama Counterterrorism Speech: President Renews Pledge to Close Gitmo


In the first national security speech of his second term, President Barack Obama delivered a wide-ranging counterterrorism speech defending drone strikes, seeming at first to offer a false dichotomy of drones strikes or boots on the ground and briefly outlining policy changes. He followed his drone defense by defining the administration's new comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy: "targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships, diplomatic engagement and assistance." One of the most important statements in the president's speech was his call to reform, if not repeal, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Support. Finally, despite the best efforts of a heckler, the president first went off-script to address her concerns then continued to outlined concrete steps to close Guantanamo.

He warned that in the face of high collateral damage, risk an international conflict, or high risk to American troops, operations such as the Osama Bin Laden raid "should not be the norm." Obama explained that in this context, new technologies like drones were an "effective" weapon, even if they came with important moral, legal, and strategic questions. He emphasized that under the AUMF, the U.S. is in a domestic and international "legal … just … and proportional war… Not only did congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that American takes."

He answered criticisms about civilian casualties by saying that a strike required "near certainty that no civilians will be injured. The highest standard we can set." He continued to outline the ways in which drones were in fact more effective and less deadly than conventional operations. President Obama said that his administration has been working tirelessly towards "establishing a framework with guideline" for the use of drones, which the president signed Wednesday. 

Touching on the legality of strikes that killed four Americans, Obama said he does not think it would be legal for the U.S. government to kill a U.S. citizen "with a drone or a shotgun … except when this person goes abroad to wage war against the United States," and it would not be legal for a president to use drones above U.S. territory.

Looking towards the future, Obama announced he was "reviewing proposals to extend oversight of strikes outside of war zones beyond reporting to Congress."

An April CBS News poll found that 70% favored "the U.S. using unmanned aircraft or 'drones' to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries," and a February Pew Research Center poll in found that 56% favored, while only 26% opposed "conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."

In a largely unexpected development, the president vowed to engage Congress on the controversial AUMF to determine whether, 12 years later, it isn't time to reform of even repeal the Authorization to Use Military Force, "This war, like all wars, must end."

In closing, the president addressed the Guantanamo hunger strike, by renewing his pledge to close GITMO, which Obama said was not only unconstitutional but also far too expensive, citing that imprisoning each prisoner costs $1 million each year. Obama said he would appoint an official to the Departments of Defense and State whose sole task was ensuring the transfer of prisoners' out of Guantanamo, including to Yemen a new facility to be created specifically for military commissions.

In broader terms, Obama discussed the complacency before 9/11 and the "different kind of war" that followed. In balancing the "interests in security and values of privacy," he said, "we compromised our basic values by using torture and detaining individuals in a way counter to the rule of law." Despite the widely ambiguous parameters of the more than decade-long War on Terror, the president discussed the reforms that were made in his first term, the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of a major domestic attack since 9/11.

The president continued, "with a decade of experience to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves the hard questions about the nature of today's threats and how to address them." Obama described the new threat as "lethal, yet less capable Al Qaeda affiliates ... [and] home grown terrorism." He noted, "we will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings."

"Sustaining a counterterrorism force with Afghanistan. Beyond Afghanistan," Obama noted the need for strategic partnerships with other countries to dismantle specific networks rather than fighting a broad, boundless war.

The president spoke of diplomatic steps to take including helping to support new democracies, and allies who fight against violent extremism. "I know that foreign aid is one of the lest popular expenditures that there is … even though it amounts to less than 1% of the budget … but we could be creating reservoirs of good will that marginalize extremism." In order to support these diplomatic efforts, the president discussed steps to secure diplomats to avoid future tragedies such as Benghazi.

Obama moved on to hint at the AP scandal, saying that journalists should not be at legal risk when doing their job, endorsing the shield law recently submitted to Congress, but reiterating the importance of strictly enforcing the secrecy of some government information.