Drones and Guantanamo on Obama's agenda

JEFF MASON
Last updated 16:29 23/05/2013

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President Barack Obama will seek to draw attention away from a series of domestic scandals with a speech on that defends the US use of drones abroad and lays out a vision for closing the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After nearly two weeks of controversies about his handling of attacks that killed four Americans in Libya, IRS scrutiny of conservative groups, and government targeting of journalists in leak probes, Obama will try to shift focus with an address that emphasizes his commitment to transparency and desire to shut a prison he promised to close years ago.

The speech at Washington's National Defense University, is meant partly to illustrate Obama's support for civil liberties after recent criticism that his administration is secretive and bullies opponents.

It is also aimed at addressing international and domestic pressure over Obama's counterterrorism policies.

US use of military drone aircraft to attack extremists has increased tensions with countries such as Pakistan and drawn criticism from human rights activists at home.

Obama's inability to make good on a 2008 campaign pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison has been highlighted by a hunger strike by more than 100 of the detainees there, dozens of whom are being force-fed to keep them from dying.

The White House, which has struggled to respond to the scandals that have dominated news coverage for days, signalled Obama would discuss the "ultimate closure" of the prison while outlining a broad counterterrorism strategy to address threats that have changed since the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda-backed attacks on New York and Washington.

"Consistent with his commitment to being open and transparent with the American people, he will speak at length about the policy and legal rationale for how the United States takes direct action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with drone strikes," 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," she said.

Obama has faced pressure from left-leaning supporters and right-leaning opponents to allow greater scrutiny of the secretive decision-making process guiding drone use. He said earlier this year he wanted to be more open about the issue.

In a precursor to his address, the administration formally acknowledged for the first time that it had killed four Americans in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan, including militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

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"You may see some concessions from the president to explain how not only we use and justify targeted strikes but also create procedures and constraints to limit their use," said Juan Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism adviser to Republican President George W. Bush.

Reuters reported earlier this week that the administration had decided to give the Pentagon control of some drone operations now run by the CIA. That would put the use of unmanned aerial vehicles against al Qaeda in countries like Pakistan and Yemen under greater congressional oversight.

CLOSING GUANTANAMO

Officials said Obama would reiterate his commitment to closing the Guantanamo prison and lay out steps to help achieve that goal.

"The president is considering a range of options for ways that we can reduce the population there and move toward ultimate closure, some of which we can take on our own, but some of which will require working with the Congress," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

One option, he said, was to reappoint a senior official at the State Department to renew US focus on transferring or repatriating detainees to their home countries.

The White House declined to comment on a report in the Wall Street Journal that the administration was set to restart transfers of detainees from Guantanamo. Obama plans in the coming weeks to lift the administration's prohibition on sending detainees to Yemen, the paper reported.

Shutting Guantanamo is fraught with difficult legal and political questions.

An aide to House Armed Services Chairman Howard McKeon, a Republican, said Obama would have to give "concrete answers on what the president intends to do with those terrorists who are too dangerous to be released but cannot be tried; how he would ensure that transferred detainees can't rejoin the fight; and what he will do to detain and interrogate new terrorist captures or those very dangerous terrorists still held in Afghanistan."

Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who helped form a bipartisan proposal to close the prison, said Obama had to move forward on closing it, even if he faced obstacles from lawmakers.

The plan he helped form suggests ways to address the remaining detainees, including trying them in civil courts or finding a way to deport them to countries where they would not face torture.

"He has the obligation as president to lead and to take us where he thinks we need to go," Pickering said of Obama.

"My hope is that he would embrace those things or have an even better way to move towards his objective."

- Reuters

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