Barack Obama defends 'just war' using drones


President Obama says it is a "hard fact" that drone strikes have killed civilians

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President Barack Obama has defended the use of drones in a "just war" of self-defence against deadly militants and a campaign that had made America safer.

In a wide-ranging speech on a programme shrouded in secrecy, he said there must be "near certainty" that no civilians would die in such strikes.

In a renewed push to shut Guantanamo Bay, he said he had lifted a moratorium on prisoner transfers to Yemen.

Mr Obama also defended the use of drones to kill four US citizens.

"We are at war with an organisation that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first," he said in Thursday's address at the National Defense University in Washington DC.

"So this is a just war - a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defence."

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No-one should doubt President Obama's commitment to close Guantanamo Bay prison, but he cannot point to any reason the old promise might now become a reality after five years of failure”

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He added: "And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defence 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."

Declaring America at a "crossroads" in its efforts to combat militancy, Mr Obama also said his administration would be willing to accept increased oversight of drone strikes outside war zones like Afghanistan.

Human rights groups have long condemned the use of unmanned drones to carry out killings.

Mr Obama warned that a "perpetual" US war on terror, whether through drone strikes, special forces operations or troop deployments, would be "self-defeating".

As the president addressed efforts to close the detention centre at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he was interrupted by a protester shouting about the current hunger strike at the prison.

Drone strikes

Archive photo of a Predator drone, December 2008
  • Four US citizens killed in strikes since 2009
  • Bureau of Investigative Journalism has recorded 368 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 46-56 confirmed strikes in Yemen since 2002
  • Vast majority carried out under Barack Obama

"I'm willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it's worth being passionate about," he said.

Mr Obama told his audience: "Guantanamo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

The president had made shutting the prison a top priority at the beginning of his first term, but his effort foundered amid strong opposition in Congress.

'Nastiest killers'

Calling on Congress not to block his efforts to transfer the facility's inmates to American high-security jails, he added: "No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons in the United States."

Mr Obama said he was appointing envoys from the defence and state departments to negotiate transfers of detainees to other countries, and said he would lift a moratorium on transfers to Yemen.

After the speech, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss told reporters Mr Obama was wrong to lift the Yemen moratorium because Yemeni authorities could not be trusted to "handle them".

US media reaction

In an opinion piece, the Washington Post says: "After four years of alarming intelligence reports and attacks that were prevented and those that were not, Obama sounded like a former constitutional law lecturer who sees the nation and its security challenges in more shades of gray than he once did."

"We wish Mr Obama had pledged an accounting for the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes, and some form of reparations, but he did not. He should do so," says the New York Times in an editorial.

Commenting on the heckler, the Los Angeles Times says: "Obama's careful and almost deferential response suggested that he is closely attuned to such complaints. Rather than dismiss [her] as a heckler, the president engaged her, asking her to let him explain but also pausing to listen as she continued to talk while security closed in around her.

"We've got 166 of the meanest, nastiest killers in the world located at Guantanamo Bay today," he said. "If we were to transfer them to Yemen, it would be just like turning them loose. We should try those individuals at Guantanamo in the courtrooms and then make a decision about what to do with them."

Meanwhile, Yemen welcomed the move, a spokesman at the country's Washington embassy said.

Mr Obama's speech coincided with the signing of new "presidential policy guidance" on the use of drone strikes, the White House said.

The policy document curtails the circumstances in which drones can be used in places that are not overt war zones, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Drone 'rules'

In an outline of the new policy released to the news media, the administration said it preferred to capture terrorist suspects, with drone strikes used only amid a "continuing, imminent threat" to the US.

Reports suggested that the military would assume greater control over the drone programme, which is currently led in most areas by the CIA.

However, it was also reported that the CIA would maintain control of the programme in Pakistan, where most strikes have been carried out.

Beyond that, the administration listed criteria for the approval of a drone strike:

President Obama is heckled over his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison

  • "Near certainty" the target was present and that civilians would not be injured or killed
  • Capture would not be feasible
  • Authorities of the country in question could not or would not address the threat
  • No other reasonable alternatives were available

On Wednesday, the US disclosed that four Americans had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan since 2011, marking the first formal public acknowledgement of the US citizen deaths in drone strikes.

In a letter to the Senate judiciary committee, US Attorney General Eric Holder defended the targeted killing in 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki, whom he described as a "senior operational leader" of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Awlaki, who was born in the US state of New Mexico, was killed in a missile strike from an unmanned plane in Yemen in September 2011 along with Samir Khan, a naturalised US citizen who produced an online al-Qaeda magazine.

Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, born in Colorado, was killed in Yemen a month later.

Mr Holder also confirmed Jude Kenan Mohammad, a North Carolina resident, had been killed in a drone strike. He is thought to have died in a strike in November 2011 in Pakistan's South Waziristan region.

Mr Holder said only Awlaki had been "specifically targeted and killed", and that the other men "were not specifically targeted by the United States".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    i think its the best scenario. lots of controversy regardless but limited loss of life of our young men which is the typical method and the real issue is if we should be at war in the first place...

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    A B52 is in no way more accurate than a drone. More people would probably be killed with a manned aircraft, or they would drop increased number of bombs.

    Islamist bombers killed 7 people today in Niger, 130 killed last week in Iraq, civil war in Nigeria. Perhaps, they should try being Swiss?

    How about drone vs suicide bomber? I'd rather be on side of the drone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    "They (the Swiss) are too busy shooting each other dead to bother fighting anyone else"
    Ermm are you saying that the "gun murder rate" is actually the "total murder rate". Guess what, it is not.

    Their murder, and crime, rates are low, very low. Ours are not. We were recently voted the most dangerous country in the EU, with a worse crime rate than even South Africa.
    Get real!

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    The technology being used is not the issue here.

    It is the fact of one country's government carrying out extra-judicial killings in another country. It is state-sponsored murder - no more, no less.

    But as the technology matures, these chickens will come home to roost.

    How long do they really think it will be before terrorists have the technology to target... ooh, say a US president?

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    "It is nor a "just war" when a wedding party are blown up. It is not a "just war" when drones bomb villages killing women and children. "

    During Chinese civil wars, the communist put wowen, elderly, and children in front of their solders. You apparently never in army or any force and never understand the mentality of wars. Enemy will take advantage of your "weakness" to win "their" wars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    What ever happened to the rule of law?

    America, Land of the free, home of the brave...

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    @ 160 Can´t say I was ever enamoured with the man personally. Promised far too much to far too many. The level at which he reneged on those promises was quite stunning.

    His reversal regarding the Patriot Act alone was one of the greatest acts of political treachery I´ve heard of.

    In repect of who said what to whom it´s clear the not enough Americans said no to him.....twice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    "We are at war with an organisation that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first" - Obama.

    Considering Obama is admitting to killing US citizens without trial, I'd say he's just justified his own assassination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    I know what al-Qaeda's problem is... They're in the wrong country!

    Silly "terrorists". Just cross over to your holiday camp in Syria and put on your Al-Nusra Front T-Shirts. There the Americans, and Europeans, will give you all the cash and weapons you could ever need, to have a real jihad of a good time! Solved! All praises be to Allah! Wait...

    Western Hypocrisy Fail.

  • Comment number 172.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    None of the theocratic states are democracies anyway, they have no popular governments. Blasphemy and censorship laws remove any chance of civil rights.

    War in Afghanistan is least of their problems. Armed gangs jacked most of those countries. The Taliban invaded Afghanistan in 1996, taste of own medicine.

    Afghanistan is one less problem true, but it doesn't improve fortunes of many muslims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    "I don't see how the presence of a pilot in a machine built to destroy somehow makes it more ethical (or less unethical)."

    -Although some people disagree with the use of drones in general, the main point is that the USA are extra-judicially assassinating political threats outside of any warzone. How can you justify, outside of war, state sponsored murder of human-beings, and where does it end?

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    This type of war being waged can NEVER be "won".

    It is a battle of "hearts and minds".
    It can not be won with munitions - especially not drones.

    Imagiine where you MIGHT like to make friends but it is a Drone; enemy eyes and death that you have contact with.
    Not very friendly and likely to prolong unrest?

    Poking foreigners in the eye with a stick does not make friends.
    Mutual agreement does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    If Muslim nations didn't choose to threaten us because they hate our chosen way of life then the USA and UK wouldn't need to be anywhere near their countries et al using drones,

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    re. 50.Andy Post:
    "What makes the use of a drone better or worse than the use of any weapon?"

    In terms of destructive power, none, but unmanned drones remove the physical danger and thus the political risks to the attacker and by doing so may tempt leaders to use force to resolve conflicts more, not less, often. In that sense they're potentially more destabilizing than nukes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    What are the Swiss doing, or not doing, different to us?
    They're too busy shooting each other dead to bother fighting anyone else

    13 times our gun murder rate and 19 times our gun suicide rate

    They do/did the banking for Al Qaeda, the Kaiser, Hitler & Stalin amongst other vile organisations. The most immoral country in the world

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Plus, keeping to themselves and respecting comity (letting sleeping dogs lie), keeps those pesky terrorists disinterested with the Swiss too.

    In other words, no Swiss boots invaded Iraq, and no Swiss drones bomb civilians in Pakistan. In short, the Swiss keep their army where it belongs, at home protecting their borders, not someone else's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    This is not a village full of people, but home base for a global terrorist network. The cells in north Africa and middle east are involved in gnarly conflicts.

    I do have sympathy, but the civilians live in terrorist central. Look at election bombings in Pakistan - that's the border region.

    To be honest less Taliban is probably an improvement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Well it seems a safer way of fighting. Humans will always be fighting.

  • Comment number 162.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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