Obama Will Slow Down Drone Strikes But Keep Control

The MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle taxis into Creech Air Force Base, Nev., March 13 marking the first operational airframe of its kind to land here. This Reaper is the first of many soon to be assigned to the 42nd Attack Squadron.
Photo: Corbis

In a big counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University today, President Obama plans to lay out his national security strategy for his second term, detailing a strategy for closing Guantánamo and reorganizing the drone program. According to the New York Times, his hope is “to refocus the epic conflict that has defined American priorities since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and even foresees an unspecified day when the so-called war on terror might all but end.” But while he will “reject the notion of a perpetual war with terrorists,” he’s not calling it off just yet. There are incremental changes to be made, but Obama is still in charge.

Yesterday, the administration formally acknowledged killing four Americans abroad in drone strikes and explained its rationale for doing so as a precursor to a new era of high-tech warfare. The Times reports that Obama “approved providing new information to Congress and the public about the rules governing his attacks on Al Qaeda and its allies”:

The standard could signal an end to “signature strikes,” or attacks on groups of unknown men based only on their presumed status as members of Al Qaeda or some other enemy group — an approach that administration critics say has resulted in many civilian casualties. In effect, this appears to be a step away from the less restricted use of force allowed in war zones and toward the more limited use of force for self-defense allowed outside of armed conflict.

From President Obama’s prepared remarks: “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.” He adds, “That’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.”

The Daily Beast has more on the long-planned “institutionalization” of the drone program and how Obama will maintain control, “despite the fact that the military made an aggressive push to wrest back control over final targeting calls from the commander-in-chief.” Along with new CIA chief John Brennan, Obama has worked to scale back the program as the military “pushed to take the president out of the process.” Instead, “Obama’s role in deciding who will die and who will be spared will actually increase over time,” while the covert CIA side of things comes to an end.

There will be a “much higher threshold for targeting suspected terrorists,” Daniel Klaidman reports, but according to one official, “it didn’t make sense that while we were on the one hand raising the bar for these decisions, we would also remove the president from the decision-making chain.”

Now make no mistake: our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama’s speech reminds the world. “From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”

“Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. … 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.” The entire epic address is here.

This post has been updated throughout.

Obama National Security Speech Explains Drones