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Obama Pledges To Be More Transparent About Drone Program


In a speech today, President Obama laid out a new vision of the global war on terror. He said that more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the threat from terrorism has changed and U.S. policy must change with it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal or even effective is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.

BLOCK: Speaking at the National Defense University, the president pledged to be more transparent about the targeted killing of terrorism suspects overseas and he said he was open to reviewing how drones are used.

NPR's Carrie Johnson is here to talk about the speech and what changes it might mean for national security policy. And, Carrie, what is new about what the president had to say today about drones in particular?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: First of all, Melissa, the president - perhaps responding to the infamous filibuster by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul earlier this year - stated once and for all he does not intend to use weaponized drones over American skies and soil.

More importantly, more substantively, he talked about using the same standard for targeting both American citizens overseas and foreign citizens overseas. That includes several criteria, including the fact that these people must, in his view, pose a continuing and eminent threat; that there is no way for the host country in which they're residing or hiding can take action against them short of a drone attack.

And that, finally, the president said he intends to evaluate up front whether any civilian casualties might ensue as a result of these attacks and would only carry out an attack in the situation where virtually no civilian casualties would result.

BLOCK: So this amounts to limiting, narrowing the scope of those drone strikes.

JOHNSON: That's exactly right. Finally, he also talked about having a preference for the Pentagon being in charge of the trigger instead of the CIA.

BLOCK: Carrie, one very controversial issue in the drone strike debate has to do with the killing of American citizens overseas. And we now know, from the White House, that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes since President Obama took office. But only one of them, Anwar al-Awlaki, was specifically targeted. What did the president have to say about that in his speech?

JOHNSON: The president said Anwar al-Awlaki had essentially become a senior operational figure in Al-Qaida in Yemen, and that he was continuously directing attacks against Americans, including the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing plot, a plot the following year involving planting bombs on cargo planes. And that Awlaki had been targeted for attack a year before the U.S. actually struck him, and that Congress had been notified in advance.

What the president did not talk about though, was three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in drone strikes since 2009; most controversially, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who was killed a few weeks later in Yemen while he was sitting at an outdoor cafe. A lot of civil liberties experts wonder if that was just a tragic mistake for which the U.S. government is never going to take responsibility.

BLOCK: Carrie, the president also said today that he's going to talk to Congress about how drones are used. Where might that lead?

JOHNSON: So, the president says there are a lot of trade-offs here, Melissa. He says he's open to talking with lawmakers about creating a new unit in the executive branch, or even a special court, to review drone targeting decisions on the front-end. But many judges, many federal judges have expressed some concern about whether that's even constitutional or whether they'd be essentially signing death warrants, and whether that's something judges want to do.

The president said there are good and bad reasons to consider all these things. But he's willing to start a conversation.

BLOCK: OK. And very briefly, Carrie, the president also talked about Guantanamo Bay and he had a little news about detainees at that facility.

JOHNSON: The president says it's within his power, Melissa, to lift a ban on transferring several dozen detainees back to Yemen, where they're from, which could restart the process in some ways, but members of Congress are already out there saying they don't want detainees to be moved out of GITMO.

BLOCK: And specifically to Yemen, because of fears that they will be released from prison and rejoin the fight?

JOHNSON: That's exactly right.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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