Obama aims to reduce US drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay

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President Obama on Thursday outlined a broad overhaul of some of the most secretive and controversial US counter-terrorism policies, from drone strokes to the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, but many details remained murky, even as he warned the path to an exit from a war posture against al Qaeda and its affiliates will not be quick or without continued hard choices.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University Thursday. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

The speech follows a year-long policy review to try to institutionalize and codify the “rules of the road” for some of the most sensitive US counter-terrorism programs, that was led by then White House counter-terroism advisor, now CIA Director John Brennan, Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported.Several of these have come to a critical head in the past few weeks, with the hunger strike of 105 of the 166 prisoners at the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, and the revelation last week that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of more than 20 Associated Press journalists as part of a leak probe into the source for an AP story on a classified intelligence operation in Yemen.

“All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” Obama said Thursday.

President Obama this week signed a Presidential Policy Guidance document on the use of US drone strikes, that raises the threshold for when drone strikes can be used. The newly codified guidelines say that drone strikes can only be used when it is not feasible for the US or a partner to capture the terror suspect, when it is determined that there will be no civilian casualties; and when the terror suspect is deemed a “continuing and imminent” threat to the United States. Previous guidance on targeting, according to senior administration officials, said the terror suspect must pose a “significant” threat–a seemingly less demanding standard.

Obama also said he was lifting a moratorium on transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen, and was appointing a new Special Envoy at the State and Defense departments whose sole job it would be to find third countries where Gitmo detainees could go. The White House said that the administration would review on a case by case basis the possibility for transferring some of the over 50 Yemenis detained at Guantanamo Bay, several of whom had been cleared for release.

“To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries,” Obama said. “And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said Thursday. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

As part of the broad policy overhaul, Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday revealed the names of four US citizens killed by US drone strikes since 2009, only one of whom he said was specifically targeted, Anwar al-Awlaki. Three others killed, including Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abd aI-Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed, were “not specifically targeted by the United States,” Holder said in a letter released to Congress. Administration officials have not revealed the circumstances under which the younger Awlaki was killed if he was not targeted.

Yemen welcomed Obama’s announcement, and said it would do all it could to ensure that Yemeni detainees allowed to be repatriated from Guantanamo Bay not return to terrorism.

The Yemeni government “will work with the United States to take all necessary steps to ensure the safe return of its detainees and will continue working towards their gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society,” Mohammad Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in the United States, said in a statement Thursday.

The White House said improvements in the US partnership with the Yemeni government under the leadership of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi had helped make way for the policy changes.

President Obama’s “intention to lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen reflects the recognition that in President Hadi the United States has a willing and increasingly able partner in Yemen,” a senior US administration official said in a press call Thursday.

(Photo: President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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