President Barack Obama announced drastic changes to the United States’ counterterrorism operations Thursday, reforming the rules that guide America’s drone program while also expediting the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
The president spoke at the National Defense University in Washington, DC Thursday afternoon to discuss those two issues in particular, weighing in on a pair of topics that have increasingly attracted criticism to the administration since Obama’s first term in office began more than four years ago.
When Mr. Obama entered the White House in 2009, he inherited a couple of items from the George W. Bush administration that are widely cited today as the driving force behind anti-American sentiment overseas: the US has continued to operate the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba military prison to house more than 160 alleged enemy combatants; and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, has increased exponentially under Mr. Obama’s leadership.
But although both the drone program and Guantanamo Bay have existed for more than a decade, calls for reform on both matters have increased severely in recent months. By many estimates, thousands of women, children and other innocent victims have been killed during a decade-long war dominated by drones. Meanwhile, Gitmo inmates — nearly all of them — remain committed to a hunger strike that has made the White House the object of international embarrassment and prompted them to start force-feeding prisoners.
During Thursday’s address, Pres. Obama spoke in depth on both topics while outlining changes to his administration’s counterterrorism operations as the face of war changes more than a decade after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted the invasion of Afghanistan.
“Make no mistake—our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” said Obama. “From Benghazi to Boston we have been tragically reminded of that truth, but we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.”
Setting the course for a speech that at times celebrated America’s counterterrorism practices while also recognizing the necessity of revamping them, Obama said the US is at a crossroads and “must define the nature and scope of this struggle or else it will define us.”
“We have to make decisions based not on fear but on hard-earned wisdom,” he said.
One day earlier, US Attorney General Eric Holder wrote Congress to inform them that Mr. Obama approved new presidential guidelines for drone use. Simply put, Holder explained that the administration hopes to make it clear that their official policy mandates that “lethal force should not be used when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect.”
On Thursday, Obama added that “America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists.”
“Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them,” said the president. “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
In his address, Pres. Obama credited drones with helping dismantle the core of al-Qaeda and even said the strikes have prevented the loss of lives. At the same time, however, the president acknowledged that his administration is responsible for killing no fewer than four US citizens with these attacks and potentially thousands of civilians.
“It is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars,” said Obama. “For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
In order to bring about more accountability to America’s actions overseas, Obama admitted to approving of the guidelines Holder hinted at one day earlier, shaping the way America will conduct its drone war overseas.
“In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014,” he said. “That means we will continue to take strikes against high value al-Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
But elsewhere during his address, Obama defended the drone strikes and suggested that the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles has been instrumental in winning the war on terror.
“Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, US transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” he said.
Last month, a Yemeni activist with ties to the US testified before Congress as to drones being used in his own town even when other counterterrorism options are on the table. Speaking in Washington just days after a drone blew up a small part of Wessab, Yemen, Farea al-Muslimi pleaded with lawmakers to find another way to advance its war on terror.
“My understanding is that Hameed Meftah, who is also known as Hameed al-Radmi, was the target of the drone strike. Many people in Wessab know a-Radmi. Earlier on the night he was killed, he was reportedly in the village meeting with the general secretary of local councilors, the head of the local government. A person in the village told me that al-Radmi had also met with security and government officials at the security headquarters just three days prior to the drone strike. Yemeni officials easily could have found and arrested al-Radmi,” he said.
“The people in my village wanted al-Radmi to be captured, so that they could question him and find out what he was doing wrong so they could put an end to it. They still don’t have an answer to that question. Instead, all they have is the psychological fear and terror that now occupies their souls. They fear that their home or a neighbor’s home could be bombed at any time by a US drone,” al-Muslimi said.
Although Holder wrote in his letter that four US citizens were killed with drones between 2009 and 2011, he admitted that three of those victims — ages 16, 21 and 30 — were never meant to be killed. Later, the attorney general explained that the September 2011 drone strike use to target suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki was subjected to intense judicial scrutiny before being ordered because it involved using lethal force against a US citizen located abroad. Because al-Awlaki allegedly posed an immediate threat to the lives of Americans, Holder said his killing was justified.
“Al-Awlaki repeatedly made clear his intent to attack US persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives,” wrote Holder. “Based on this information, high-level US government officials appropriately concluded that al-Awlaki posed a continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
On Thursday, Obama weighed in further on the 2011 drone strike. “For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over US soil,” he said. “But when a US citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill US citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
Obama concluded his address in Washington by weighing in on the situation at Gitmo, where as many as 130 of the 166 inmates are currently participating in a hunger strike.
“The original premise for opening Gitmo – that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention – was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people –almost $1 million per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep Gitmo open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home,” said Obama.
The president went on to say he’s recently directed the Pentagon to designate a site where some of the inmates currently held at Gitmo could be relocated, and revealed that he’s lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen. At least 88 of the 166 detainees at Gitmo are Yemeni nationals, and 59 of them were approved to be transferred from the prison four years ago. Up until now, however, Pres. Obama has refused to release Yemen natives from US custody, with his administration citing potential security concerns as a reason for continuously housing dozens of men, many of who have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted.
“Imagine a future – 10 years from now or 20 years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?” he asked.
More than three-quarters of the detainees at Gitmo have been on a hunger strike since February. The president has repeatedly said this year that he wants to shut down the facility, but allegedly congressional roadblocks have prevented him from doing so. He campaigned on shutting down Guantanamo before being elected in November 2008, and was interrupted no fewer than four times during Thursday’s address by a female protester who demanded the immediate closure of the detention facility.
“I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about,” the president responded. “Is this who we are? Is that something our fathers foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?
In the years since Obama campaigned on closing Gitmo, he has repeatedly called on Congress to help make his promise a reality. On Thursday, he once again urged lawmakers in Washington to act on his request.
“I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. These restrictions make no sense,” he said.
At one point, Obama went off his script and again acknowledged the cry from the crowd.
“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong,” Obama said.
Last month, Yemeni detainee Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel told the New York Times that Gitmo was literally killing him. “I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial,” he said.
“I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here,” he wrote. “The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.”
“I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.”
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