White House official: Obama to defend drone use, Guantánamo closure



Expect President Barack Obama’s defense policy speech Thursday to explain that drone strikes are necessary for national security, according to a White House official, but that the Guantánamo prison is not.

The speech, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the National Defense University at Washington, D.C.’s, Fort McNair comes at a time of heightened tensions at the prison camps in Cuba. An Army spokesman said Thursday morning that Navy medics counted 103 prisoners as hungers strikers, and were force-feeding 32 of them.

Obama pledged to close the camps in Cuba at the start of his administration. Now, in the first major national security address of his second term, “the president will reiterate his strong commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo as a part of our effort to align our counter-terrorism strategy with our values,” the official said.

The speech will include “a number of specific steps to advance that goal,” according to the White House official, who provided speech themes Wednesday night on condition she not be named.

However, the White House would not confirm a Wall Street Journal report that said the president would, in coming weeks, lift a moratorium on transfers of Yemenis back to their homeland from Guantánamo. But such a step would be key to starting to empty the prison. About 90 captives are Yemeni, and 56 are approved for transfer, in one fashion or another.

Instead, a description of the speech offered Wednesday night by the White House official suggested the speech would focus more on drones then detention, with an elaborate justification for using drone strikes to kill terrorists rather than capture them.

To set the stage, Attorney General Eric Holder officially notified Congress on Wednesday that the Obama administration had used the targeted assassination scheme to kill four American citizens in Yemen and Pakistan.

The White House official cast the disclosure as in keeping with Obama’s “commitment to being open and transparent with the American people.”

So “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.”

Obama has increasingly relied on killing by drones as new tactic in a new phase of what the Bush White House called The War on Terror. Now, “al-Qaida’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated,” the official said, “and new threats have emerged from al Qaeda affiliates, localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists.”

It was unclear from the official’s comments whether the speech would answer key questions regarding Obama’s renewed effort to empty the prison camps at Guantánamo, where a staff of 1,700 or so troops and civilians currently imprison 166 captives.

The questions include:

• Who will Obama choose as a senior administration official to lead the diplomatic initiative and arrange transfer agreements with foreign countries? The selection is seen as a key step toward restarting the closure process.

• Will Obama put Congress on notice that he plans to ignore its certification and waiver requirement for Guantánamo transfers? Some legal analyst argue he has the authority to declare his independent authority as commander-in-chief to do so.

• Will Obama renew his effort to put some Guantánamo detainees on trial in the federal court system? Congress has forbidden him from transferring any of the captives in Cuba to U.S. soil for trial.

Obama has argued for years that the prison in Cuba has done damage to American foreign policy, and served as a recruiting tool for America’s enemies.

But the base and the issue are remote and the majority of Americans never embraced the argument.

A FoxNews poll published Wednesday night showed 63 percent of Americans want to keep the prison open, and 48 percent of those polled thought the detention center made America safer.

Similarly, analysts note, the use of drone strikes is seen abroad as a reviled projection of American power.

Micah Zenko, a fellow specializing in national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday that an April 2012 Pew poll plus his research has demonstrated that “nobody publically or privately agrees with America’s interpretation of the limitless scope of the battlefield, and who it believes it can kill.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “drones are the face of U.S. foreign policy. Not only where the operations occur, but globally.”

Abroad, drone strikes are seen as “detached, antiseptic warfare that does not recognize the costs and consequences to the directly impacted communities on the ground.”

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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