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Obama Refines War-on-Terror Rules

Obama Refines War-on-Terror Rules

By Alexis Simendinger - May 24, 2013

President Obama used a big-sky speech Thursday to try to nudge America beyond a post-9/11 “war on terror” and toward containing and dismantling terrorist organizations and extremists that pose threats to the United States.

“This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama said during an hour-long address that was interrupted by rebukes shouted by Code Pink protester Medea Benjamin. “That's what history advises. It's what our democracy demands,” he said.

In the first counterterrorism address since his re-election, Obama said the use of unmanned aerial drones abroad to kill suspected terrorists and unidentified terrorist lieutenants (including four American citizens) is necessary, legal, and moral when there is a “continuing and imminent threat” to the United States, and no other government is able to act.

He defended the lethal effectiveness of drones, but said he signed a “Presidential Policy Guidance” document Wednesday to codify the administration’s “standards” for all drone use, much of which Obama has decided to shift to Pentagon control from the CIA.

Administration officials, speaking to reporters on background before the speech, said the government’s threshold had changed from “significant threat,” described by former White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan in a 2012 speech, to a new “continuing and imminent threat” standard.

“America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” Obama added. “Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose.”

The White House, in a fact sheet about Obama’s long-awaited drone playbook, said, “It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.”

In his speech Thursday at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama sought to refine the principles and practices that shape what he described as a shifting national security challenge since the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq -- and in a world in which terror threats to Americans and to the United States will never be fully eradicated (and may be home-grown).

The war against al-Qaeda, including in Afghanistan, has largely been won, he suggested. The ongoing battle against spinoff terror groups and efforts to thwart extremists who threaten Americans present long-term challenges beyond al-Qaeda, he said.

Those arguments are central to simmering debates between the administration and Congress about the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Obama’s calls to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the preferred adjudication venue for accused terrorists, and the operational strength of the 9/11 terror network.

Obama used the present tense to argue that his current use of drones is occurring in “a just war” against the 9/11 attackers, authorized by Congress. But the president also tried to tuck al-Qaeda into the past tense, arguing that “the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They've not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”

In a press conference on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain challenged Obama’s assertion that al-Qaeda was close to defeat after a dozen years of war and Osama bin Laden’s death.

“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaeda,” McCain said. “To somehow argue that al-Qaeda is, quote, ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that, to me, is really incredible. Al-Qaeda … is … expanding all over the Middle East, from Mali to Yemen and all places in between. And to somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground. Al-Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”

By suggesting an ongoing posture to thwart terrorist attacks rather than the eradication of global terrorists through war, the president opened the door to Congress to engage anew over unfinished business before he leaves office.

Obama said he wants to work with Congress on:

-- Alternative oversight options to appropriately monitor the government’s use of lethal drones. He mentioned several ideas proposed by outside advocates -- and then proceeded to knock them down as flawed;

-- “Refinements” to and ultimately the repeal of the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, which Congress adopted three days after the terrorist attacks in 2001;

-- Lawmakers’ approval of administration funding requests to fortify security at U.S. diplomatic facilities in dangerous parts of the world, especially following the Benghazi attacks;

-- Removal of congressional restrictions on the president’s power to transfer 166 remaining Guantanamo detainees to other countries, including Yemen, or other U.S. civilian or military prisons, thus shuttering the prison in Cuba. “There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that it should have never been opened,” he said, his voice rising.

The president also hoped to change the subject during a fretful period in which the administration is being investigated on Capitol Hill for admitted “improper” IRS activities; last year’s terrorist attacks on Americans in Benghazi; and revelations that the Justice Department secretly probed journalists’ phone and other records as part of a hunt for accused federal leakers.

To address criticism of the latter, Obama said he would continue the practice in an effort to protect national security, but also raised his concerns about protecting the rights of a free press with Attorney General Eric Holder. The president said he tasked Holder to review the Justice Department’s standards on investigating the media; to meet with media advocacy organizations; and to report to him by July 12.

Obama also sought Congress’s support for a federal shield law to protect journalists from judicial overreach, something he hastily embraced after news broke about the secretly captured records from phone lines used by the Associated Press, the world’s largest global wire service.

Days later it was disclosed that Justice collected phone and email records linked to a journalist for Fox News in an effort to build a criminal case against a State Department official accused of leaking classified information.

Reporters have asked whether other news organizations have been similarly targeted and not advised of the government data collections.

The government described Fox reporter James Rosen as a “possible co-conspirator,” a characterization approved by Holder. The suggestion that reporters are criminals while pursuing the news and investigating the government was so ferociously opposed by respected media companies that Obama was forced to issue a statement through his spokesman that investigative reporters are not criminals when they do their work.

“I'm troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” Obama added during Thursday’s speech.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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