Obama delivered a counter-terrorism address last week at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, laying out the justification for rolling back those policies now that combat is finished in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan and at the same time preserving his administration's ability to continue to confront threats.
Maybe past policy to increase the government's ability to investigate terror plots was right, maybe it wasn't, Obama said. But more than a decade after the terror attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and severely damaged the Pentagon he's had enough.
"I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing," Obama said.
"The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States. 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.
"So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. 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."
Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution called the speech "just noise" that sought to criticize the current administration's and the (George W.) Bush administration's strategic policies while preserving the ability to continue to carry them out.
"To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has -- but also to make sure that it could continue to do so," Wittes said.
Wittes said Obama does not need Congress to narrow AUMF. All he has to do is declare the war over.
"And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that," Wittes wrote on the Brookings website. "To the contrary, he promised that 'we must finish the work of defeating al-Qaida and its associated forces' and while he used a lot of nice words about law enforcement and a lot of disparaging words about perpetual states of war, he also promised to continue targeting the enemy with lethal force under the AUMF. In other words, he promised -- without quite saying it directly -- to keep waging war."
Obama also called for rolling back the level of drone strikes being conducted but justified the targeting of al-Qaida leaders, particularly the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born AQAP leader who orchestrated terror plots, including the planting of two explosives-laden printers aboard airplanes and the attempted shoe-bombing of American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in December 2001.
"When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. 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 said in justifying the killing of Awlaki and three other Americans, including Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who died in drone strikes.
"Of course, the targeting of any American raises constitutional issues that are not present in other strikes -- which is why my administration submitted information about Awlaki to the Department of Justice months before Awlaki was killed and briefed the Congress before this strike as well. But the high threshold that we've set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens."
Obama said the use of drones "raises profound questions," both about targeting and civilian casualties. So, the president said, the administration has now codified the guidelines to be used in making decisions, along with oversight and accountability in the Presidential Policy Guidance directive he signed Wednesday.
The administration further justifies the use of drones, saying traditional military methods would result in greater civilian casualties.
And when it comes to terrorists in custody who cannot be returned to their home countries, sent elsewhere or tried because the evidence against them has been compromised, Obama said it is time to shutter the prison at Guantanamo and incarcerate those individuals in military or maximum security prisons in the United States.
Obama noted 67 Guantanamo prisoners were sent elsewhere at the start of his administration and more than 500 were deported during his predecessor's before Congress imposed restrictions. One-hundred-66 prisoners -- many of whom are engaged in a hunger strike and are being force-fed -- remain in the facility, which costs $150 million a year to maintain.
"There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," Obama said.
One of the 300 people in the audience interrupted the president, telling him he had the authority to close the prison without congressional approval.
"Release them today," Medea Benjamin demanded before she was escorted out.
Amnesty International agreed, saying all detainees "must be fairly tried in federal court or released."
"President Obama was right not to endorse the concept of indefinite detention, but his proposal to restart unfair military commissions in the mainland U.S. should be rejected as both unlawful and unnecessary," Amnesty said in a release.
"President Obama is right that the country is at a crossroads. It's time for the path not chosen over a decade ago. It's time for human rights."
Predictably, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, rejected closing Guantanamo.
"Gitmo serves an important function of detaining America's most dangerous enemy combatants," Cornyn said in a statement.
"No individual who continues to pose a threat to the U.S. should be shuttled home at the expense of American taxpayers only to return to the battlefield to kill Americans and our friends, no matter how many dramatic hunger strikes are staged," Cornyn said.
"In making national security decisions, the president's foremost consideration must always be the safety of the American people, not misguided campaign pledges and attempts to pivot from scandals."
That was a reference to the controversy related to the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., warned the speech will be seen as a victory by terrorists.
"We knew five years ago that closing Guantanamo was a bad idea and would not work," Chambliss said. "Yet, today's speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough we will give in and send them home, even to Yemen."
On drones, Amnesty said: "What's needed ... is not a 'kill court' but, critically, much more transparency regarding the legal basis for the drones program, including the release of the newly approved presidential guidance as well as independent investigations of alleged extrajudicial executions and remedy for victims.
"There's no need to wait to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The Obama administration should immediately end reliance on the flawed "global war" legal theory at the heart of indefinite detention, military commissions and the killing of terror suspects and civilians alike."
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