In a broad and comprehensive address at National Defense University, President Obama laid out the framework for U.S. counter-terrorism strategy as we wind down the war in Afghanistan. The President provided the American people with an update on how the threat of terrorism has changed substantially since September 11, 2001, as Al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated, and new threats have emerged from al Qaeda affiliates, localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists. The President also discussed our comprehensive strategy to meet these threats, including waging the war against al Qaeda and our counter-terrorism efforts more broadly. The following are some of the policy highlights from the President’s speech:
Responding to the Threat: Targeting Terrorists and Leveraging Effective Partnerships
Our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas. First, we must finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces. In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for security and work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counter-terrorism force that ensures al Qaeda can never again establish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.
Beyond Afghanistan, 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. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries. Much of our best counter-terrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence and the arrest and prosecution of terrorists.
Standards for Taking Lethal Action
Despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed. Al Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain a foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth. In this context, the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones. As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions – about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality. The President’s speech addressed many of those questions.
Our actions are effective. Dozens of highly skilled core al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. These strikes have saved lives.
America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
Over the last four years, the 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 the President signed on May 22, 2013. As a part of that effort, the President has indicated a preference that the U.S. military should carry out the use of force in active warzones, and beyond.
Oversight and Authorities
We insist on strong oversight. Since the President took office, the Administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Congress is briefed on every targeted strike we take, including the one instance when we specifically targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This week, the President authorized the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, in part to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims. In his speech, the President stated for the record that he does not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.
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 U.S. nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should not serve as a shield.
Going forward, the President has asked his Administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions beyond Congress, including the potential for a special court in the judicial branch, or an independent oversight board within the executive branch.
In his speech, the President also stated his intention to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing. The President will engage Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.
Beyond the Use of Force: Diplomatic Engagement and Assistance
Our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism from North Africa to South Asia. Our security and our values demand that we make this effort. But, success requires sustained engagement, which will require resources. Foreign aid amounts to less than one percent of our budget and it is fundamental to our national security. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan that offer an alternative to extremism, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists. Going forward, we will need to support democratic transitions in the Arab World; support the Syrian opposition and isolate extremists; and resolve conflicts in places like the Middle East.
The United States cannot carry out this work if we do not have diplomats serving in dangerous places. Over the past decade, we have strengthened security at our Embassies abroad, and we are implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board that found unacceptable failures in Benghazi. The President has called on Congress to fully fund efforts to bolster security, harden our facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges.
Even as we guard against dangers from abroad, we cannot neglect the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders. This threat is not new, but technology and the Internet have increased its frequency and lethality. To address this threat, the President’s Administration did a comprehensive review in 2011. The best way to prevent violent extremism is to work with the American Muslim community, which has consistently rejected extremism. Our communities must work together to understand the signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence. And these partnerships can only work when we respect that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American fabric.
A Balance Between Security and Civil Liberties
Thwarting homegrown plots presents particular challenges in part because of our proud commitment to civil liberties for all who call America home. That’s why we must keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement so we can intercept new types of communication, and build in privacy protections to prevent abuse. That means that even after Boston we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence. That means putting careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the State Secrets doctrine. And that means finally establishing a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counter-terrorism efforts and our values come into tension.
As the President said in his speech, we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. That is why the President has called on Congress to pass a media shield law that guards against government over-reach. And the Attorney General will review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organization to hear their concerns as a part of that review. He will report back to the President by July 12.
President Obama has tried to close Guantanamo, and transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. In his speech, the President called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantanamo. He has asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions, and he is appointing new, senior envoys at the State Department and the Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to negotiate the transfer of detainees to third countries. The President announced we will lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. When possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will judicial review be available for every detainee.