With two current scandals pointing to an administration wanting to tamp down evidence of a growing Islamic terrorist threat, President Obama defended drone strikes at the National Defense University this afternoon with heavy emphasis on a continued narrative that al-Qaeda is on the run.
“Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage,” Obama said. “…So yes, the conflict with al-Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
“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 a shotgun – without due process,” he said. “Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.”
But the president began this drone defense — which included praise of his declassification of the details of the Anwar al-Awlaki strike — with a full-throated denial that Islamic terrorism is gaining the upper hand.
“After I took office, we stepped up the war against al-Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al-Qaeda’s leadership,” Obama said.
Obama noted homegrown terrorism in which “a person can consume hateful propaganda, commit themselves to a violent agenda, and learn how to kill without leaving their home.”
“The best way to prevent violent extremism is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence,” he said, not mentioning that no one who kicked Tamerlan Tsarnaev out of his mosque for expressing radical views notified authorities.
In fact, Obama was eager to first link Islamic terrorism solely to al-Qaeda, distance al-Qaeda from known active affiliates, then distance al-Qaeda from all recent attacks.
“Today, the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a 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 have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11,” he said, calling the threat “more diffuse” with al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
He segmented Benghazi and the attack on the BP oil facility in Algeria as “localized threats…in which local operatives – in loose affiliation with regional networks – launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.”
“We face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States,” Obama continued. “Whether it’s a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history.”
“Deranged or alienated individuals — often U.S. citizens or legal residents — can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.”
The president said Islamic terrorist “ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam.”
“And this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks,” he said, echoing remarks made by British Prime Minister David Cameron after a soldier was brutally slaughtered by Islamic extremists yesterday.
Obama said his counterterrorism strategy will hinge on “finish[ing] the work of defeating al-Qaeda and its associated forces” and giving aid to French-led intervention in Mali and other international efforts to fight terrorism, and “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.”
“But despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists,” he said, drone strikes are necessary because “our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.”
He predicted that by the time of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan next year “the progress we’ve made against core al-Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
“America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat,” Obama added.
The president claimed civilian deaths from drone strikes “for me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”
He justified the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki but did not mention the more controversial killing of the AQAP recruiter’s teen son.
“And the best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim-American community, which has consistently rejected terrorism, to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence,” Obama said. “And these partnerships can only work when we recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family. In fact, the success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachments on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say that we’re at war with Islam.”
Obama claimed that “as president, I have tried to close Gitmo.”
“I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo,” he said.
During the Guantanamo part of the speech, he was repeatedly interrupted by Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and engaged her instead of ignoring her. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” Obama said. “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, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
Republicans lashed out at his speech, though, as very wrong-headed.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, declared “the president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory.”
“Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit,” he said.
“We knew five years ago that closing Guantanamo was a bad idea and would not work. Yet, today’s speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough, we will give in and send them home, even to Yemen. With the recidivism rate now at 28 percent and the increased threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including in Yemen, Gitmo must stay open for business.”
Obama said “Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
“Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo,” the president added.
“Gitmo serves an important function of detaining America’s most dangerous enemy combatants. No individual who continues to pose a threat to the U.S. should be shuttled home at the expense of American taxpayers only to return to the battlefield to kill Americans and our friends, no matter how many dramatic hunger strikes are staged,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“In making national security decisions, the president’s foremost consideration must always be the safety of the American people, not misguided campaign pledges and attempts to pivot from scandals.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that just before the Benghazi attack Obama had declared “al-Qaeda is on its heels.”
“The troubling reality is that the president continues to underestimate the serious threat that al-Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired terrorists present to Americans. Now is not the time to abandon robust efforts to keep Americans safe. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates were not on their heels last year, and they clearly are not now,” Royce said.
“The president continues to mistakenly treat counterterrorism as a law enforcement issue,” he added. “As a recent example, the Administration has reportedly failed to take military action against the identified Benghazi attackers, in part, because it prefers to try to collect evidence on them so that they might be tried in U.S. courts, leaving these terrorists on the loose. ”
Domestic drone opponent Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he was “glad the president finally acknowledged that American citizens deserve some form of due process.”
“But I still have concerns over whether flash cards and PowerPoint presentations represent due process; my preference would be to try accused U.S. citizens for treason in a court of law,” Paul said.
The greatest praise for Obama’s address, which even liberal pundits branded on Twitter as a catch-all jumble, seemed to come from Obama appointee Chuck Hagel over at the Pentagon.
“The president today presented a comprehensive vision for how we will continue to protect the nation from terrorism, especially from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, while remaining true to our values and laws,” Hagel said. “…Having been closely involved in these issues as a U.S. senator, the co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and now as secretary of Defense, I applaud President Obama’s strong leadership in defending the United States of America and advancing our interests around the world.”