President Obama tries to deflect home criticism with terror speech

President Obama makes surprise visit to Bagram...

President Obama on Thursday shifted the United States away from a “boundless global war on terror,” restricting deadly U.S. drone strikes abroad and taking steps toward closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

In a major policy speech, Obama defended his administration’s drone war against al Qaeda and its allies but made clear he was narrowing the scope of targeted killings, a campaign that has faced growing condemnation at home and abroad.

“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama said at Washington’s National Defense University. “We must recognize however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”

Faced with criticism about the morality of using unmanned aerial vehicles to wage war in distant lands, Obama said the United States will only use drone strikes when a threat is “continuing and imminent,” a nuanced change from the previous policy of launching strikes against a significant threat.

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama said.

Under new presidential guidance signed by Obama on Wednesday, the Defense Department will take the lead in launching lethal drones, as opposed to the current practice of the CIA taking charge.

That would subject drone operations to more scrutiny from Congress and might lead to the Pentagon taking over drone operations in Yemen, but not in Pakistan where the CIA is likely to still run the unmanned aerial vehicles program.

Obama appears intent on confronting human rights and civil liberties challenges that threaten to stain his own legacy if left unresolved in his second term.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands,” he said.

Republican opponents accused him of giving in to terrorism.

“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory. Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit,” Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia said.

The use by the United States of armed drone aircraft to attack extremists has increased tensions with countries such as Pakistan and drawn criticism from human rights activists. Obama acted in line with a promise to be more open about the issue.

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” Obama said.

Renewing his longstanding vow to close the Guantanamo prison at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Obama is to lift a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen, and appoint a State Department coordinator and work with Congress to break a deadlock over the detention camp where most prisoners have been held for more than a decade without trial.

He called the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” Opened by his predecessor President George W. Bush to hold men rounded up on suspicion of involvement with al Qaeda and the Taliban after the September 11 attacks, Guantanamo has defied efforts by Obama to shut it. His current proposals will likely face resistance from Republican lawmakers.

Faced with congressional opposition, Obama has been frustrated by his inability to carry out a 2008 campaign pledge to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A hunger strike by 103 of the 166 detainees has put pressure on him to take action.

“There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said.

He was interrupted for more than a minute by a heckler from the Code Pink movement, who berated him for not closing the prison.

While he cannot shut Guantanamo on his own, Obama did announce some steps aimed at getting some prisoners out. He lifted a moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen out of respect for that country’s reforming government.

He called on Congress to lift restrictions on the transfer of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo and directed the Defense Department to identify a site to hold military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.

“Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system,” he said.

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