WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to open a new phase in the nation’s struggle with terrorism Thursday by restricting the use of unmanned drone strikes that have been at the heart of his national-security strategy and shifting control of them away from the CIA to the military.
In his first major speech on counterterrorism of his second term, Obama hopes to refocus the epic conflict that has defined U.S. priorities since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and foresees an unspecified day when the so-called war on terrorism might all but end, according to people briefed on White House plans.
As part of the shift in approach, the administration on Wednesday formally acknowledged for the first time that it had killed four U.S. citizens in drone strikes outside the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, saying its actions were justified by the danger to the United States. Obama approved providing new information to Congress and the public about the rules governing his attacks on al-Qaida and its allies.
A new classified policy guidance signed by Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists.
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Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen alone would not be enough to justify being targeted.
The standard could signal an end to “signature strikes,” or attacks on groups of unknown men based only on their presumed status as members of al-Qaida or some other enemy group, an approach that administration critics say has resulted in many civilian casualties.
This appears to be a step away from the less restricted use of force allowed in war zones and toward the more limited use of force for self-defense allowed outside of armed conflict.
In the speech he will give on Thursday at the National Defense University, Obama will also renew his long-stalled effort to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Officials said they would make a fresh push to transfer detainees to home countries and lift the ban on sending some back to Yemen. The president plans to reappoint a high-level State Department official to oversee the effort to reduce the prison population.
Even as he moves the counterterrorism effort to a next stage, Obama plans to offer a robust defense of a continued role for targeted killings, a policy he has generally addressed only in passing or in interviews rather than in a speech. A White House official said he “will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action.”
Drone strikes have already been decreasing in the past few years as targets have been killed and opposition has grown.
In his letter to congressional leaders, Holder confirmed the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric and U.S. citizen who died in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen. Holder also wrote that U.S. forces had killed three other Americans who “were not specifically targeted.”
The U.S. involvement in al-Awlaki’s death has been widely reported, but the administration until now had refused to confirm it.
Likewise, Holder confirmed the government’s role in the deaths of Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike, and al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16, a Denver native who died in another strike. The letter disclosed the death of a fourth American, Jude Kenan Mohammed, a Florida native and one of eight men indicted by federal authorities in 2009. They were accused of being part of a plot to attack the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. Before he could be arrested, Mohammad fled the country to join jihadi fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where he was among those killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. He was 20.
Holder defended the actions, saying they were consistent with U.S. law and taken only after careful consideration.
“Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during the current conflict, it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted,” he wrote.
Critics were not assuaged.
“The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the ‘global battlefield’ legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence,” said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International. “President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed.”
Holder’s letter expanded the rationale for the killing of al-Awlaki. Holder said al-Awlaki not only had “planned” the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, a claim that has been widely discussed in court documents and elsewhere, but had also “played a key role” in an October 2010 plot to bomb cargo planes bound for the U.S., including taking “part in the development and testing” of the bombs. He added that al-Awlaki had also been involved in “the planning of numerous other plots.”