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The President's Remarks On The Future Of National Security


This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In just a few minutes, President Obama will deliver what's described as a major address at the National Defense University here in Washington, D.C., a speech where he's expected to refocus strategy and tactics in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Eleven-and-a-half years after the attacks of 9/11, the president's expected to conclude that the character of that conflict has changed and adapt U.S. response to fit those new circumstances, in particular how the threat has diminished from al-Qaida proper and shifted to its affiliates in places like Yemen and Libya and to homegrown terrorists like the men who bombed the Boston Marathon.

And now here's President Obama at the National Defense University.


CONAN: President Obama at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. You're listening to live coverage, from NPR News.

I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. With me here in the studio are NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving and NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. And Ron Elving, as we listened to the president's speech, he was refocusing America's strategy in the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates. He alluded to a situation, not an un-dangerous situation, but a situation more like what it was before the attacks on 9/11 than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: That's right, we've moved into a phase, if you will, of the counterterrorism war, more than decade old now, that the president is trying to redefine. He's not just reiterating the policy that we've had, but he is trying to adjust it to a world in which al-Qaida is a different kind of threat.

He's saying it's still a threat, there are still many people who want to kill as many Americans as they possibly can, as the president said, but it is a different kind of organization. It's much more diffuse. It doesn't have the same centrality, it doesn't have the same effectiveness that it had at its peak, and we need to adjust the way we fight it, and we also need to adjust the way we fight it because of the negative effects that the war itself has had on the United States internally, on our image around the world, on our standing in Muslim countries in particular, and because of the divisiveness of the issue within our own domestic self-conception.

CONAN: And Dina Temple-Raston, he also called for changes in the way those threats are addressed, in particular on the principal use of the principal weapon in counterterrorism operations, the armed, unmanned aircraft known as drones.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Known as drones, the first time that we've seen a really comprehensive explanation of the way they're used, the way that they actually make decisions, and in particular we heard for the first time from the president an explanation of why Americans have been targeted by the drone program and that in the future he says that the threshold for targeting people is going to be higher.

It has to be an imminent threat. Those are the people who will be targeted by drones. That's a big switch.

CONAN: And that's different from what it was before, particularly in what were known as signature strikes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right, signature strikes, which were in fact strikes in which people who looked like they might be up to something could be struck, and that - essentially he's taken that off the table completely, and that's a big switch.

CONAN: He also spoke of another kind of threat, Ron Elving, and that is homegrown terrorism, the kind of threat we saw at the Boston Marathon just last month and spoke of the difficulties in addressing those kinds of threats.

ELVING: The difference here is you're not talking about people who have infiltrated the country and gotten a hold of lethal weapons of one kind or another, even if that's an improvised weapon such as an airplane in the 9/11 instance. You're talking about people who have really become part of American society. They have been here for so long and been here under legitimate circumstances, and they have in a very real sense Americanized or so seemed to have done.

And these people, of course, are much more difficult to detect. They are in a sense almost, if you will, homegrown, even if they were not necessarily born in the United States. And therefore, it is more of a criminal matter, if you will, but it's still terrorism. It is both. There's a kind of hybridization, if you will, of motivation.

There's a Venn diagram between ordinary crime or the kind of extraordinary crime that we saw in, say, Columbine High School, and the kind of violence that comes from an international intention, some sort of vengeance being visited on the United States by the outside world.

CONAN: Speaking to a recent controversy, he expressed concern over the chilling effect of investigations of journalists in the attempt to plug leaks. He did not offer a solution but expressed concern. And Dina Temple-Raston, an important change in his approach to Guantanamo Bay, another issue about which he said little.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what's very interesting is that he said two things that we haven't heard before. The first is that he's willing to consider some sort of military commission in the United States. And the second is that he'll be lifting a moratorium that basically has made it - it was his own moratorium, a presidential order, that made it...

CONAN: He put the blame on Congress, but...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there were two. There's the blame on Congress for not being able to transfer detainees into this country and elsewhere, but he also - there are people who are already cleared from Yemen, 56 people from Yemen, and he made clear that that's going to be a key group that he's going to look at and review and possibly send home. So that's a big step too, given that there are over 100 detainees at Guantanamo right now who are on a hunger strike precisely because they said they felt they were forgotten.

CONAN: He spoke with some passion on the issue - ask yourself if this is an America we want to see 10 or 20 years from now, holding people outside of our country without charge. He was not the only one who spoke with passion. There was a heckler who spoke at length from the audience. He defended her right, saying this too is an aspect of freedom of speech, and these are difficult issues, though he did not agree with much of what she had to say.

Stay tuned to NPR News for further coverage of the president's important speech today on foreign affairs later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Our thanks to NPR senior Washington Ron Elving and to counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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