WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has outlined a new course in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in a major national security speech in the capital in which he said America was at a "crossroads" in its ongoing battle against terrorism.
Speaking at the National Defense University, Obama announced new limits on the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists and a shift of control of lethal force operations from the CIA to the military, as well as fresh steps concerning detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
"America’s actions are legal," he said in defense of U.S. counterterrorism steps since the devastating Al-Qaeda attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in September 2001. "We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war -- a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense."
Obama signed a presidential order this week that allows lethal force to be used against someone who represents a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans." Until now, the lower standard was a "significant threat."
"The same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it," Obama said. "That’s why over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists -- insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday."
The White House has long wrestled with the dilemma of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, especially in Pakistan.
He said in his May 23 speech that no strike is ordered without the "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."
"It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars," Obama said. "For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Obama said his new policies are aimed at putting the United States on a course to get America off a "wartime footing."
He framed his remarks in the context of America’s national identity, saying that "history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it."
The official U.S. figures of number of strikes and estimated deaths remain classified.
But various estimates suggest some 400 drone strikes have been carried out since 2004, the majority in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Somalia, and North African countries.
Some studies put the number of people killed in such drone strikes at around 3,000, including militants and civilians.
On the eve of Obama's speech, the U.S. administration revealed for the first time that four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes outside war zones under this president. Attorney General Eric Holder made the admission in a letter to Congress.
"Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," Obama said. "So doing nothing is not an option."
He acknowledged the toll on relations with Pakistan that a U.S. operation there took in May 2011 when Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid on a compound not far from a prestigious Pakistani military academy.
"The cost to our relationship with Pakistan -- and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory -- was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership."
Obama also reiterated his desire to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
"I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from [the detention center at Guantanamo Bay]," Obama said. "I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and the Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries."
He announced his decision to lift a moratorium on relocating Guantanamo inmates to unstable Yemen, adding that such cases would be reviewed "on a case-by-case basis."
Obama was repeatedly interrupted by a heckler who pressed him on the continued operation of the Guantanamo facility and the detainees there, many of whom have launched hunger strikes against their imprisonment.
He acknowledged the passions that such detentions stir and said that while he didn't agree with most of what she said, "the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to."
"Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror," Obama said. "We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and [we must] make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend."
White House aides had said the speech would be aimed at creating more transparency with the American people, outlining how terrorist threats have changed since 2001, and envisioning a day when the country "is no longer on a war footing."
With reporting by Heather Maher in Washington