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White House

Obama’s 20 Steps to Counterterrorism

Unpacking the president's hour-long (with heckling) speech on drones, Gitmo, and everything in between.

The sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility at dawn, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba.(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In his first major counterterrorism address of his second term, President Obama outlined several steps that his administration will take to fight terrorism both at home and abroad.

“From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children,” Obama said at National Defense University on Thursday.

Here is how the president plans to address this complicated issue:

 

1.   End the war in Afghanistan

For over a decade, the U.S. has fought a war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the president committed once more to the idea that the U.S. will end its combat operations by 2014 and start transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces.

“Our troops will come home. Our combat mission will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counter-terrorism force which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies,” Obama said.

2.   Stop fighting a “global war on terror”

The president often objects to the term “war on terror,” and has instead committed the U.S. to a fight against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

This involves partnerships with nations like Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, which helps the apprehension and prosecution of terrorists. The partnerships also involve the process of gathering and sharing intelligence.

3.   No apologies for drone strikes

Because of the risks to U.S. troops and civilians, the president said that drone operations would result is less damage than a conventional war or the use of other aerial bombings. The operation to capture Osama bin Laden, he said, should not be the norm for the future of U.S. counterterrorism operations.

“It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” Obama said, in one of his first public acknowledgements of the drone program.

4.   Recognize that the U.S. is still at war

By both international and domestic law, the president said, the U.S. is still at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates.

“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,” Obama said. “So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

5.   Finalize the administration’s “playbook”

The Obama administration has often promised to finalize a so-called “playbook” that the U.S. would follow for carrying out drone attacks. Apparently, the president did just that on Wednesday.

“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,” Obama said.

6.   Try to detain, not kill, suspected terrorists

Though he justifies the killing of suspected terrorists who pose a “continued and imminent” threat against the U.S., he still prefers to detain these suspected terrorists.

“America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty,” Obama said. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”

7.   Civilian deaths are haunting but...

The reality of war is that civilians oftentimes die as a result of conflict, the president admitted. He did offer words of remorse, saying the 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.”

The president, however, does attempt to justify some civilian deaths, compared to other wars and terrorism: “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.”

8.   Enough with the boots on the ground

By narrowly focusing U.S. attacks on the ground through drone strikes, the president argued, the U.S. has an option that is “least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

“So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world,” Obama said. “The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.”

9.   Seek more oversight for drone strikes

The Obama administration will reach out to Congress to secure further oversight for such strikes. The president said that Congress has not only authorized the use of force, but has also been briefed on every drone strike that the U.S. has launched, including the one on U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki.

“The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites,” Obama said. “It can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”

This could either come from some sort of court or oversight board in the Executive Branch that would approve such strikes. However, both options have their own risks, Obama admitted.

10.   Kill Americans abroad, if need be

An American abroad who is working to kill Americans through terrorist actions void their rights as U.S. citizens, Obama said. This was the case for Awlaki.

“But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team,” Obama said.

11.   Address extremism and supporting democracy abroad

By addressing problems like poverty and sectarian conflict, while also supporting democracy in democracy in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, encouraging peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and strengthening the opposition in Syria, the U.S. can fight extremism abroad without violence.

“We must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears,” Obama said.

12.   Encourage foreign assistance

Through recognizing how unpopular foreign aid is among the American people, the president said that budget item that accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget is vital to U.S. standing abroad.

“Foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity,” Obama said. “It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”

13.   Protect U.S. diplomats

The president has implemented all the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board in the aftermath of the Benghazi terrorist attack that killed four Americans. Obama is now calling on Congress to full fund the administration’s budget request to protect diplomats overseas.

“I have called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges,” Obama said.

14.   Work with the U.S. Muslim community

“Homegrown extremists: this is the future of terrorism,” the president said.

The way that many homegrown terrorists have come into fruition has been through training over the Internet, radicalizing without leaving their home. He offered some solutions.

“The best way to prevent violent extremism is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence,” Obama said.

15.   Bolster security at home

Although he said he wants to protect civil liberties at home, the president offered a few suggestions on how to improve the U.S. ability to prevent or properly respond to terrorist attacks within the U.S.

“That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, and build in privacy protections to prevent abuse,” Obama said. “That means that – even after Boston – we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence.”

16.   Support a Media Shield Law

The president said it is his obligation as the commander-in-chief to find out who in the U.S. government leaked classified information to journalists, saying there are consequences for breaking the law. But he also said that the federal government should protect the rights of journalists to publish that information.

“I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” Obama said. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law.”

To address this issue, he recommended that Congress pass a media shield law that protects their rights, while also calling on the attorney general to convene a group of journalism leaders to find more solutions. Obama said he wants a report by July 12.

17.   Pass a new Authorization to Use Military Force law

The current law that the U.S. uses to legally justify its operations to fight al-Qaida and other terrorists is now over 12 years old. Obama said that Congress must pass a new law to prevent future abuses of power and repeal the current law’s mandate.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said. “But this war, like all wars, must end.”

18.   Try suspects in military or civilian courts

Several suspected terrorists have already been tried in civilian and military courts and the U.S. should continue this practice, the president argued. From the “shoe bomber” to the man who tried to blow up a car in Times Square, these terrorists have gone to jail for their actions, he said.

“To repeat, as a matter of policy, the preference of the United States is to capture terrorist suspects. When we do detain a suspect, we interrogate them.”

19.   Close Guantanamo Bay Prison

In order to ensure full justice, Obama said, the U.S. must close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, which he called a “glaring exception.” He made both an economic and moral argument, saying the cost is too much in both instances.

“Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo,” Obama said. “During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people—almost $1 million per prisoner.”

Obama continued: “Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.”

20.   Allow the transfer of detainees to other countries

In his tenure, Obama has transferred 67 detainees. George W. Bush transferred 530 detainees with congressional support during his term in office. However, in recent years, Congress has blocked his ability to transfer detainees to other countries, the president said.

“To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries,” Obama said. “Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”

The president announced that he has lifted a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen, while also announcing that he will appoint new senior envoys from the State and Defense Departments to deal with this issue. Ultimately, he said, Obama needs cooperation from Congress.

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