Barack Obama Gives Counterterrorism Speech at National Defense University

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University May 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Getty Images)

President Barack Obama gave a speech on counter-terrorism at National Defense University on Thursday, where he addressed the current policies and practices of the United States, and how he hopes to develop them.

The speech was wide-ranging, hitting on everything from drones to the Department of Justice spying on reporters (and even included a tense exchange with a protester).

“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” but the threat has “shifted and evolved” from what we faced on 9/11, Obama said.

He continued: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

So here’s what you need to know…

Identifying the Enemy: Al-Qaeda Affiliates and Homegrown Extremists

President Obama said during his speech that “the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat,” and what we are facing now is more “diffuse” al-Qaeda affiliates “from Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa.”

Unrest in the Middle East (he didn’t mention the ‘Arab Spring’ by name) has allowed extremists and state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah to gain territory in places like Syria and Libya.  But according to the president, they are primarily “focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”  The government remains on the alert in case they attempt any transnational attacks.

But we also need to be aware of the “real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States,” Obama concluded.  The president referenced “a shooter at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas,” and “the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City,” incorporating a case of terrorism not inspired by radical Islam.

“Deranged or alienated individuals – often U.S. citizens or legal residents – can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad,” he said.  “That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.”

“So that’s the current threat,” he concluded.  “Lethal yet less capable al-Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.”

In Defense of Drones (and a response to Rand Paul)

President Obama spent a significant part of speech defending the use of drones by the U.S. government.

“Despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed,” he said.  “Al Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain a foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth…”

The use of drones is “effective,” he said, and reduces the risk for our own troops and for civilians located nearby.

Moreover, he added, the use of drones is authorized and legal against an enemy that “would right now kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first.”

Still, there will be new guidelines in place as the war enters a new phase.

“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,” he said.  The appropriate committees of Congress have been briefed on every strike, he added, continuing to say that “beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces.”

Perhaps in response to the buzz created by the filibuster begun by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) after he received a letter from the Department of Justice that didn’t rule out the possibility of domestic drone strikes, the president said: “For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.”

Outreach and Foreign Aid

“For all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe,” the president continued, saying the “next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflict that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.

He said we must “patiently” support the transition to democracy in post-Arab Spring countries, support the rebels in Syria while isolating the extremists, and work towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  But we must also help “modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship.”

“Success on these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources,” he warned.  “I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures – even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent.”

Targeting Journalists

President Obama also touched on the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of the phone records of Associated Press and Fox News reporters.

He once again insisted he had no part in or prior knowledge of the matter, but said “the Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society.”

He continued:

“As Commander-in Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy.  I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.  Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.

Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach. I have raised these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concern. So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review. And I have directed the Attorney General to report back to me by July 12th.”

Guantanamo Bay:

President Obama reiterated his call to close Guantanamo Bay during his speech on Thursday, noting that the cost per prisoner is nearly $1 million per year, in an era of budget cuts.  He said we could successfully transfer detainees to other countries or hold them in the United States in prisons where no one has ever escaped from.

“And given my Administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” he said.

It was during the Guantanamo portion of his speech that the president was confronted by a vociferous protester who shouted relentlessly about the death of 16-year-old Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, Guantanamo Bay, and more.

Here’s video of the tense exchange (the woman has since been identified as Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin):

[Click here to read TheBlaze's entire post on the interruption]

President Obama received applause when he reacted by saying he would have to go “off script, as you might expect” after the speech.

However, within a few sentences he was right back on, according to the pre-prepared text of the president’s remarks distributed by the White House.

After renewing his call to Congress to close Guantanamo, the president announced he was lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, a notorious training ground for terrorists.  According to the Associated Press, of the 166 detainees currently at Guantanamo, about 90 are from Yemen.

Conclusion

President Obama concluded his speech on a positive note, describing how success will be measured.

“The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear – that is both our sword and our shield. And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots, deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history – the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries, to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad,” he said.  “And that flag will still stand for freedom.”

“Thank you. God Bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.”