President Barack Obama defends US drone strikes - but moves to rein them in as Guantanamo Bay closure rears its head again

US President seeks to assuage anger – at  home and abroad – over unmanned flight attacks

Washington

President Barack Obama combined a vigorous defence of his controversial use of drones with a no less impassioned demand for the closure of the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which he called “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”

In a sweeping public reassessment of the evolving threat facing the US, Mr Obama directly addressed two of the most controversial aspects of the country's "war on terror": the use of armed unmanned drones to pre-emptively kill suspected militants thousands of miles from America's borders; and the future of Gitmo, where some inmates have been held without charge or trial for more than 11 years.

On drones, Mr Obama argued that such attacks were not only legal, but that they were the most efficient and least bloody means of going after terrorists who posed an imminent danger, in remote and lawless places beyond the reach of government. Drones had caused "heartbreaking" civilian casualties, he admitted, but they were safer than the alternatives, when an armed intervention by US troops on the ground could cause both more deaths among innocent civilians and also trigger an international crisis.

The President's remarks coincided with the issuance of a new "Presidential policy guidance" on drone strikes. Mr Obama conceded the need for greater oversight of their use. But he made no reference to reports that control of such operations is being gradually shifted from the paramilitary arm of the CIA to the more publicly accountable Pentagon. At times his speech turned into a review of the entire history of terrorism, as he argued that with al-Qa'ida's leadership broken and on the run, the pattern had reverted to the 1980s and 1990s, before 9/11 – since when there had been no significant terrorist attack on US soil.

The response now could not solely consist of military force and law enforcement, but had to tackle the root causes of the problem. "In the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qa'ida will pose a credible threat to the United States," Mr Obama said.

Whether the President's words will allay criticism at home is doubtful, not least on Capitol Hill where many – Democrats and Republicans alike – worry that the sweeping anti-terror measures passed in the wake of 9/11 give the White House unbridled powers to use military force anywhere in the world.

Nor are human rights groups likely to be satisfied. Dixon Osburn, legal director of Human Rights First, welcomed the pledge of greater transparency, but said he was "deeply concerned" that the White House "appears to be institutionalising a problematic targeted killing policy without public debate."

Preparing the ground for Mr Obama's address, his administration on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that four US citizens have been killed by drone attacks, outside the formal battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. The deaths of three of them – the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, his son and another militant – in a drone strike in Yemen 18 months ago were widely reported, but the killing of a fourth, Jude Kenan Mohammad, allegedly involved in a terrorist ring in North Carolina, was not previously known.

In a letter to Congress, the Attorney General, Eric Holder, argued that the Awlaki operation conformed to the principle that drone attacks were justified when the threat was imminent and where capture of the target was "not feasible". Awlaki was suspected of being behind the attempted bombing of an airliner near Detroit at Christmas 2009, among other charges.

In fact, drone strikes already appear to be declining in number, in part because of public complaints, in part because many top-tier terrorist targets are now dead. Even so, their use has markedly increased since Mr Obama took office.

On Gitmo, listeners broke out in spontaneous applause when a woman protester in the audience at the National Defence University at Fort McNair repeatedly interrupted him and denounced the facility – even as the President announced a series of steps towards shutting the prison.

These include the reappointment of a top-level State Department envoy to work on the transfer of inmates to their own countries, an end to the ban on repatriations of Yemenis, and renewed search for a site on the US mainland.

"Her voice is worth listening to," the President said, after he heard the protester out, almost seeming to agree with her, "these are tough issues, they cannot be glossed over."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us