In a speech outlining U.S. counterterrorism efforts, President Obama cautioned against using drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism and said he is insisting on strong oversight of all lethal action, including tighter standards for unmanned air strikes.
President Barack Obama said Thursday the U.S. war against terror must seek new tactics and far-reaching revisions in the legal and moral framework that has guided policies since 2001.
While the U.S. must continue efforts to dismantle terrorist organizations and protect Americans against attack, “This war, like all wars, must end,” the president said at the National Defense University. “That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
Mr. Obama said the U.S. has turned a corner in the war with al Qaeda, in a speech that was a comprehensive statement of his national security views and policies. Senior administration officials said it had been in the works since his State of the Union address in February.
The president both defended the administration’s reliance on airstrikes by unmanned drones and argued for new restrictions on their use. He also said he would resume steps to shrink and eventually close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Obama said for the first time that the 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks should be revised and eventually repealed to recognize that al Qaeda is a terror organization on the path to defeat.
The 2001 law authorized war against terror groups and nations that harbor them. It has been used by the Bush and Obama administrations to launch global counterterrorism operations, as well as the war in Afghanistan.
Republicans cast doubt on any repeal. “I believe we are not in a war that is winding down,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). “We are in a war that is morphing.”
National security experts said many questions remained about U.S. counterterrorism policy, including drone strikes.
“I think this should be the beginning of discussion rather than the end,” said Jonah Blank, an analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank that does work for the government.
The president’s call for new restrictions on unmanned airstrikes reflects a significant recalibration for Mr. Obama, who aggressively expanded the use of drones.
The targeted killings eliminated much of al Qaeda’s top leadership. But they fueled a global backlash over what some allies and human rights groups regard as extrajudicial attacks.
Since Mr. Obama became president in 2009, the U.S. has conducted more than 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, compared with fewer than 50 during the presidency of George W. Bush, according to the nonpartisan New America Foundation. The pace of strikes under Mr. Obama, however, has declined sharply over the past two years.
The president approved new policies this week that appeared to stiffen requirements for strikes—stating, for example, that the U.S. will only target suspected terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” rather those who pose a “significant threat to U.S. interests,” the standard outlined by the White House in 2012, according to administration officials.
A protestor interrupts President Barack Obama’s speech at National Defense University. Photo: AP.
The policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama designated the U.S. military as the government agency of “preference” to run U.S. drone campaigns overseas, according to officials.
This indicated the president’s intention to phase out the Central Intelligence Agency’s control of drone campaigns in Yemen and eventually Pakistan, according to senior administration officials.
Mr. Obama’s new policy also set standards for launching drone strikes.
Some of the guidelines have been in place, administration officials said, and others have been strengthened. Standards outlined by Mr. Obama include that there “must be a near certainty” that no civilNEWS.GNOM.ES will be killed or injured in a drone strike.
The standards, officials said, would apply both to U.S. citizens overseas and everyone else.
The new standard adopted by Mr. Obama limiting strikes to suspected terrorists believed to be a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” rather than “U.S. interests” will likely curtail American drone strikes against militant groups that threaten U.S. allies, including terrorist groups in Pakistan targeting the government there but not the U.S. directly, according to current and former officials.
Medea Benjamin, center, with the activist group Code Pink interrupted President Obama as he spoke about his administration’s counterterrorism policies.
Mr. Obama didn’t set a deadline for ending the CIA’s control of drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen. But officials said the CIA drone program operating in Yemen was likely to be the first to go because the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command already operated a drone force there.
Along with new guidelines for the drone program, Mr. Obama signaled an openness to more oversight, possibly including the creation of a secret court to oversee drone targeting. The administration for the first time Wednesday acknowledged that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes, three by accident.
See a timeline of key events since the first detainees arrived in 2002 and track the number of inmates over time.
Sens. Angus King, a Maine independent, and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) sought Thursday to add new checks on the administration’s drone program, proposing a bill to require an independent review when American terrorist suspects are considered for targeted killings.
Mr. Obama said Thursday that the U.S. was at a crossroads and argued against waging war on al Qaeda indefinitely. Administration officials, including former Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, have said the war against the terror group would eventually end. But spoken by Mr. Obama, the statement was given new force.
In arguing for winding down the war on terror, Mr. Obama said the core of al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.
“Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” he said.
The president also explained a decision to lift the administration’s self-imposed ban on transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen.
There are 56 Yemeni nationals who have been cleared for transfer but remain detained in Guantanamo.
The administration imposed the ban on transferring Yemeni detainees after the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing, a plot that originated in Yemen.
Human rights groups say reducing the population of detainees is a critical first step to closing the prison. There are currently 166 prisoners, including 86 who have been cleared for transfer.
Senior administration officials said the president would ask the Defense Department to pick a site in the U.S. to hold military proceedings.
But Mr. Obama faces tough obstacles. A bipartisan majority of lawmakers in Congress opposes transferring detainees to the U.S. And Congress has made it difficult to transfer detainees to other countries.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that to close Guantanamo, the president must offer plans for the interrogation of future suspected terrorists, as well as what to do with detainees who can’t be held for trial but are too dangerous to release.
The president’s remarks Thursday were interrupted several times by Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, the group that has long protested U.S. war and counterterrorism policy.
Code Pink protesters are regularly thrown out of congressional hearings, but Ms. Benjamin was allowed to remain. Code Pink held a 50-person protest outside, said Alli McCracken, a Code Pink Organizer who confirmed Ms. Benjamin was the protester interrupting Mr. Obama.
and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
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A version of this article appeared May 24, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama Resets War on Terror.