Inside Story Americas

Obama's speech: The question of drones

Did the US president answer the salient questions posed to him, and did he effectively contextualise the use of drones?

Last Modified: 24 May 2013 14:47
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US President Barack Obama gave a speech that was meant to contextualise the global drone war that has escalated under his presidency, outline the framework for future targeted killing, and address concerns about the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay.

But did he succeed?

Addressing an audience at the National Defence University on Thursday, Obama defended the controversial drone attacks as legal, effective and a necessary tool in an evolving US counterterrorism policy.

But he also acknowledged that the targeted strikes were no "cure-all".

It's unanimous from our side of the fence that the speech was likely a 'D' on the grade scale and the only reason
it wasn't an 'F' was that he agreed to lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen. Beyond that it's complete failure
and a sign that politics has won in the White House over the president's claimed constitutional virtues.

Carlos Warner, a lawyer for Guantanamo detainees

His speech came a day after his administration revealed for the first time that a fourth American citizen had been killed in secretive drone raids abroad.

In his speech, Obama said drone use was justified when the capture of a 'terrorist' was not possible,

He said the US did not order drone strikes if capture was possible, but added that it was not possible to send special forces "to capture every terrorist".

He said the actions of drone campaigns are effective and legal, but that legal did not mean it was "wise or moral in every instance".

"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. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set," Obama said.

The president said operations like the one against Osama bin Laden "cannot be the norm". 

He also said drone strikes are "least likely to result in loss of innocent life".

During his speech, Obama was heckled by veteran political activist, Medea Benjamin, who asked various questions as she was led away by security guards, including why 16 year old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki - a US citizen killed by a drone attack in Yemen - was killed.

She also asked the president to tell Muslims that "their lives are as precious as our lives", to take the drones out of the hands of the CIA, to stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities, and to apologise to the thousands of Muslims killed and compensate the families of innocent victims.

Obama continued: "For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US citizen - with a drone, or a shotgun - without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over US soil."

In his speech, he also reiterated that Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed, and he urged Congress to act on it.

So, did Obama answer the salient questions he was asked? And did he succeed in contextualising the use of drones?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by guests: Carlos Warner, a lawyer for Guantanamo detainees; and Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project.

"In a speech that covered a lot of areas, perhaps the most important things is the president's recognition that we cannot be in a potentially global war footing forever, and that the administration's claimed war authority, like any kind of war, has to come to an end ... Of course we think that authority should come to an end sooner rather than some point in an indeterminate future that the president laid out.

"[There were] encouraging things that we heard from the president, but also a lack of clarity on some keys areas .... Here are the things that we continue not to know, which are: what does continuing imminence actually mean? What we know from attorney Holder's letter yesterday ... is that the imminent standard is vague and elastic so much so that it's robbed of its plain dictionary meaning. We don't know what the president actually means here."

- Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project


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