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Americas

Obama tackles Guantanamo, drones in security speech

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-05-24

US President Barack Obama on Thursday announced plans to scale back US drone strikes against extremists abroad and launched a new bid to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, in a major foreign policy speech after weeks of domestic scandals.

President Barack Obama outlined plans on Thursday to limit the use of US drone strikes against extremists abroad and took steps aimed at breaking a deadlock on closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

In a major foreign policy speech after two weeks of fending off domestic scandals, Obama limited the scope of what his predecessor, George W. Bush, had called a global war on terror after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"Our nation is still threatened by terrorists," Obama said at Washington's National Defence University. "We must recognise however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11."

"Neither I, nor any President can promise the total defeat of terror ... what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger," Obama said. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

Controversial drone strikes 'legal and just'

In a rare public discussion of the US covert drone program, Obama said that targeting terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles was a legal, effective and just military tactic.

Obama said the United States will only use drone strikes when a threat is imminent, a nuanced change from the previous policy of launching strikes against a significant threat.

"To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance," Obama said.

Under a new presidential guidance signed on Wednesday, Obama said the Defence Department will take the lead in launching drones, as opposed to the current practice of the CIA taking charge.

Any drone strike will only be launched when a terrorism suspect cannot be captured. The United States will respect state sovereignty and will limit strikes to al Qaeda or associated targets, he said.

"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," said Obama.

The use by the United States of armed drone aircraft to attack extremists has increased tensions with countries such as Pakistan and drawn criticism from human rights activists. Obama acted in line with a promise to be more open about the issue.

Renewed bid to close Guantanamo

Faced with congressional opposition, Obama has been frustrated by his inability to carry out a 2008 campaign pledge to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A hunger strike by 103 of the 166 detainees has put pressure on him to take action.

"There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," Obama said.

"I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it," Obama said.

"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."

While he cannot close it on his own, he did announce some steps aimed at getting some prisoners out. He lifted a moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen out of respect for that country's reforming government.

He called on Congress to lift restrictions on the transfer of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo and directed the Defence Department to identify a site to hold military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.

"Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system," he said.

He said he would pick a senior US envoy to handle detainee transfers, a position that has vacant since January.

The speech offered Obama a chance to change the subject after dealing with controversies about his handling of attacks in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed, Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of conservative groups, and government targeting of journalists in leak probes.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-05-23

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