In a speech Thursday afternoon at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama defended his administration’s use of drone strikes to kill terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens. Obama’s drone program has faced criticism for targeting secret terror suspects in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, and for causing civilian casualties and stressing political relations with Middle Eastern nations.
“These strikes have saved lives,” said the president. “Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. We’re at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first.”
Obama’s speech came one day after his administration formally acknowledged, for the first time, that drones have killed U.S. citizens. In a letter to several members of Congress Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. government had used “lethal force” against four U.S. citizens who were senior leaders in al-Qaeda networks and were planning terrorist activities.
On Thursday, the president sought to defend his administration’s actions against critics who say terror suspects who are U.S. citizens should have the right to a fair trial.
“For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen, with a drone or with a shotgun, without due process,” Obama said. “Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil. But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America, and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens … 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.”
The president outlined threshold rules for drone strikes he said would apply to all terror suspects outside of war zones, whether a U.S. citizen or not. Such strikes would only target members of al-Qaeda or its associated forces who are plotting imminent attacks against the United States, and would only be launched when it isn’t feasible to capture the suspect on the ground. In addition, Obama said no strike would be undertaken unless there is a “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
The president acknowledged that drone strikes have killed civilians, but said drones would ultimately result in fewer casualties than special ground operations would involve. Civilian casualty figures from drones differ in government and independent reports.
Obama has asked his administration to “review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.” Two of those proposals include establishing a court to review drone strikes, or establishing an “independent oversight board” within the executive branch.
The president’s speech might have clarified his drone policy, but it’s unlikely to silence opponents on either side of the political spectrum, said Charlie Dunlap Jr., the executive director of the Duke University School of Law’s Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security. Critics on the right may worry that the policy of “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” may simply encourage terrorists to “surround themselves with innocent civilians in order to ward off attacks.”
On the other hand, critics on the left will probably be unhappy with any continued strikes, no matter what policy constraints are imposed, Dunlap said.
Of the four U.S. citizens killed by drones since 2009, only one was targeted directly: Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Al-Awlaki masterminded a failed attempt to blow up an airplane headed to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The other three deaths involved U.S. citizens who were not direct targets of the strikes that killed them: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (the teenage son of the al-Qaeda leader), Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammad, a former North Carolina resident. Although Mohammad appears to have been killed in 2011, his name was still on the FBI’s “most wanted” list on Thursday for his role in aiding a terrorist plot. A spokeswoman told NBC News the agency would be removing his name from the list.
During Thursday’s speech, Obama also called for closing down Guantanamo Bay, the Cuban base where the United States is detaining terror suspects. As the president spoke a woman in the audience interrupted him four times, shouting for him to empty the facility immediately.
In classic Obama style, he tried to use the heckling to his advantage: “I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because [this is] worth being passionate about.”