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U.S. hardens drone stance

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday argued that evolving terrorism threats require changes to the nation's counterterrorism policies.

“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” Obama told an audience of students, national security and human rights experts and counterterror officials at the National Defense University. “What we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”

As part of that, he renewed a first-term campaign promise to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, announcing that he'd lift a ban on detainee transfers to Yemen — homeland of half of the 166 captives at the detention facility.

The speech served to counter critics who say the drone program has been bathed in secrecy.

Obama gave his most vigorous public defense of drones as legal, effective and necessary, saying he would continue ordering the precision strikes to stop potential terror attacks because the relative accuracy of drone warfare is preferable to troop deployments or traditional bombing.

He acknowledged the targeted strikes are no “cure-all” and said he is deeply troubled by the civilians unintentionally killed.

“For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live,” he said. Before any strike, he said, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

Obama's speech drew a quick response from Republicans.

“The president's speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”

A newly codified rule book, administration officials said, would hold U.S. authorities to a tougher standard when deciding whom to kill, where, and under what circumstances, McClatchy Newspapers reported.

Strikes would be authorized only against militants who pose “a continuing, imminent threat,” aides said, instead of “a significant threat,” which had been the previous standard.

A rare coalition of bipartisan lawmakers has pressed for more openness and more oversight of the highly secretive drone strikes, while liberal lawmakers have pointed to the hunger strike in pressing Obama to renew his stalled efforts to close the detention center.

The president stressed that members of Congress have been apprised of every drone strike and that he is open to the possibility of some sort of independent oversight, such as a special court or a review panel.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the president sounded good notes on drones and Gitmo during his speech but has to follow through.

Obama “is right to say that we cannot be on a war footing forever,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, told USA Today. “But the time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point.”

But Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said trials of Gitmo detainees on domestic soil would invite terrorist attacks.

Although Obama did not call predecessor George W. Bush by name, he criticized some Bush counterterrorism proposals, including treatment of detainees and what he called “torture.”

The threat of terrorism still exists, Obama said, citing Benghazi, the April bombings at the Boston Marathon and the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. But the nature of the threat has changed since 2001, he said.

The al-Qaida organization that carried out 9/11 has been severely damaged, Obama said. Dangers now emanate from al-Qaida affiliates, localized extremist groups and homegrown terrorists, he said.

That battle requires more than military action and law enforcement, he said, citing better diplomacy with other nations, intelligence sharing, more foreign aid and efforts to seek peace in the Middle East.

“Force alone cannot make us safe,” Obama said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters after the speech, “I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaida. To somehow argue that al-Qaida is on the run comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible.”

The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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