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Obama Addresses Drones, Gitmo in Speech on Refocusing Strategy on Terrorism

May 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama tried to reframe America's approach to the war on terror in an address on foreign policy. Jeffrey Brown examines the president's remarks with Pardiss Kebriaei from the Center for Constitutional Rights, former State Department official Harold Koh and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president used a wide-ranging speech today to try to reframe America’s approach to fighting terrorism. In so doing, he tackled some of the most controversial elements of his administration’s national security policy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president aimed to redefine not just the tactics, but the overall approach to countering terrorists, at the National Defense University in Washington.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror.

What we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Part of narrowing that effort is curtailing the use of unmanned drone strikes. The administration has relied heavily on drones to take out terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but it faces mounting criticism.

Just yesterday, in a letter to senators, Attorney General Eric Holder officially acknowledged drones have killed four American citizens in countries that are not war zones: radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was directly targeted in Yemen, as well as his teenage son Abdulrahman along, with Samir Khan and Jude Kenan Mohammed.

Today, the president defended the use of drones, but he acknowledged they are no cure-all and often kill the innocent.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahead of the speech, the president signed new guidelines that his aides said will curtail the use of drones. He also outlined new plans to close the prison facility at the Guantanamo Naval Base. He initially made that pledge in 2009, but he’s encountered strong resistance from Congress and other countries.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Illustrating the emotions on that issue, a protester repeatedly interrupted the president as he addressed Guantanamo.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said afterward they could support closing Guantanamo if they see a plan for doing so. But they warn, the president’s overall direction on terror policy is projecting weakness to the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore the president’s speech now.

Harold Koh worked on many of these issues as legal adviser to the State Department under President Obama until January of this year. He’s a professor of international law at Yale University. Pardiss Kebriaei is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. She and her group have led legal challenges to the administration over both drone strikes and Guantanamo. And Danielle Pletka is former staffer on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and now vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

And, welcome, all.

Harold Koh, a reframing, a rebalancing of how we see and fight terrorism, is that what we heard today, and did you think the president got it right?

HAROLD KOH, Former State Department Official: I think there were two important things.

The first was that he made the speech at all. This is a time when lot of other things are going on. He could have avoided it. But what he did was, he not only owned it, but he framed it and explained the strategy he needs going forward.

The second thing was, he rejected the construct of a perpetual, global, boundless war on terror. And he narrowed it to what we’re really trying to do, which is to fight and defeat al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces. And then he defined the role of Guantanamo and drones within that as a tool.

And then he said that both of them need to be disciplined, that drones need to be subject to clearer standards rules and more transparent and that Guantanamo needs to be closed. And so I think that he did a very good job repositioning the policy back to his own values.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you, Pardiss Kebriaei, pick up first on the drone issue because that was put in this larger context. The president talked of being more transplant, but he also made perhaps his strongest case for their use. What’s your response?

PARDISS KEBRIAEI, Center for Constitutional Rights: You know, I think that it was important.

His description of a future where the United States responds to terrorism the way virtually every other country in the world does, which is through their ordinary domestic laws and ordinary international laws, was important, and where the laws of war, the use of military force under the laws of war is the exception and not the rule.

But that was in the future. And as for today and for an indeterminate point moving forward, what I heard was a reassertion of a very flawed premise that supports the targeting killing program currently, which is of global war. He said that we are still, 12 years after the fact, at war with al-Qaida and undefined, unknown associated forces.

And I think that seemed to be very much a continuation of the problem, of a program that has resulted in thousands of people dead.

Yes, there were — there was an outline of narrower standards for targeting individuals. That was important. It remains to be seen how those standards are interpreted. He referenced imminence and unfeasibility of capture. I don’t know that prior interpretations that I have seen by the Justice Department of imminence, for example, necessarily engenders a great deal of confidence about how those standards will be interpreted.

I hope they will be interpreted narrowly. But I think the fundamental premise of the program remains.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Danielle Pletka, coming at it from a different side of things, first pick up on the drone issue. What did you hear?

DANIELLE PLETKA, Vice President, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I heard the president suggest that he issued a directive yesterday on a different use drones going into the future.

I don’t believe that any of us have seen it, so I don’t know what the specifics are. What the president suggested was that they will not be using drones in the future if they cannot guarantee that there are no civilian deaths.

If that is accurate, I don’t think that that’s a meetable standard.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think he’s crimping himself too much?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, perhaps that’s his intention.

I don’t — I don’t think it’s a meetable standard. Obviously, I think that up until now, the president has made every effort, as any president would, to ensure that civilians aren’t killed when we need to target and attack terrorists. On the other hand, people find themselves in bad places all the time, and these are the consequences of war.

But the important thing to understand — and I think that this is really what didn’t come through in the speech — is that the president seemed to imply that we somehow have chosen war, and that we can choose to end a war.

And the reality is that war chooses us. That’s what happened on Sept. 11th. And this war will end when we have defeated these groups. The problem is that we haven’t defeated them. Rather, they have expanded rather dramatically over the last few years to countries where they were not operating before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Harold Koh, you have heard both criticisms from two different directions here.

HAROLD KOH: I think both are missing the forest for the trees.

The question is, obviously, something extraordinary happened on Sept. 11th, and for 12 years, an extraordinary paradigm was used to combat that. The question the president was asking today is, is there an exit strategy or is it perpetual and boundless?

And he said, I’m choosing exit strategy. And then he said, it’s going to be narrower. The approach that’s going to be sustainable going forward is going to combine some elements, like force, but with many other tools that have developed, because the nature of the threat has itself changed. So he will use law enforcement. He will use civilian courts. He will use military courts if necessary.

But he will fix those pieces of it that he thinks have gone in the wrong direction. He thinks Guantanamo is unsustainable and a mistake, and he thinks drones need to be disciplined. And that’s bringing this into the zone of a war that can be ended, not a war that will continue forever. That is a very, very significant announcement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me — Pardiss Kebriaei, I — pick up on that, but particularly vis-a-vis Guantanamo.

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: Well, just with respect to the war issue, the war paradigm, I mean, I think a point of disagreement is about whether the use of force under the laws of war or choosing to respond under law enforcement is a matter of a policy preference.

I think there are many of us who believe that’s a matter of law and fact. The administration cannot simply assert that we are in war. It depends on objective criteria under the law, and it depends on whether the facts meet those criteria. So, that’s a basic point of disagreement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stop you there, if I could, before you get to Guantanamo, because, Danielle Pletka, you pick up on that, because that was addressing your question of when are we at war and how do we decide?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, it’s an interesting question. Honestly, it’s not one that should be directed at me.

You’re the former legal adviser at the Department of State. The president is in fact operating under the authorities granted to him by Congress. And those assume that we are at war. Are we not?

HAROLD KOH: He said that Congress had declared war against a very narrow group on Sept. 2001, al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces. And he said he wants that war to end, and that at the very end of the speech, which is far and away the most important part, he said because the state of perpetual war distorts freedom, he wants it to end.

And, therefore, his focus will be on not signing a new AUMF, or not a new — and refusing to expand its mandate. So, the question is, again, exit strategy vs. perpetual war. And he says, I’m choosing exit strategy. We’re not done, but we will be done, and we’re shifting to a more normal paradigm for dealing with these problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you want to pick up on that?

DANIELLE PLETKA: I just — we have this — we’re having this strange clinical discussion about whether we’re at war.

I think that the sine qua non of most conflicts is that there is an enemy, and that that enemy still seeks to fight you and that that enemy still seeks to destroy you, and that that enemy continues to attack you. We saw that in Boston. We saw that in Benghazi. We see it in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. We see it in Yemen. We see it in lots of places I could continue listing.

So, the notion that this is somehow a rhetorical exercise, did President Roosevelt come out and say, we need to end this war with Germany, or does he want us to win this war? Did President Reagan say, we need to end this Cold War because I’m sick of a perpetual war? I don’t understand …

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me bring Pardiss back in, because I interrupted you earlier.

Go ahead.

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: I mean, I think that what the United States is dealing with is terrorism. It’s acts of terrorism. There are allies of the United States, most countries in the world that have dealt with terrorism, on acts of — mass acts of violence, of terrorist violence on their own soil before 9/11 and after 9/11.

And the way that — that countries typically deal with those threats is through their ordinary laws. The laws of war and armed conflict are exceptions, and that exception has now swallowed the rule. We have been talking about a war paradigm for 12 years.

And it’s — again, though, it’s a matter of objective criteria under international law that determines whether we’re in armed conflict. It has to do with the nature of the groups and the intensity of fighting. It is not simply a political determination.


HAROLD KOH: Yes, I don’t think either of the previous speakers read the speech that closely.

What it said — what he said, quite frankly, was there is a particular enemy against whom we declared war in Sept. 2001. That is al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces. We are fighting them and our goal is to defeat them.

There are other people who are coming along who are dangerous also, self-radicalizers, people who are involved in Benghazi. And he said, we’re not at war with them. We can deal with them through traditional tools. So the challenge is, number one, how to end the first war, the one which we have declared, and, secondly, how to not extend that war paradigm to everybody who comes along.

He described the ways in which counterterrorism now against other new foes is much more like it was before 9/11. So, he’s talking about ending the aberrational paradigm, and shifting to a sustainable response that includes things like law enforcement tools and doesn’t include things like Guantanamo.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, all of this to be continued, I promise.

Harold Koh, Danielle Pletka, Pardiss Kebriaei, thank you, all three, very much.