WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday shifted the United States away from a “boundless global war on terror,” restricting deadly U.S. drone strikes abroad and taking steps toward closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
In a major policy speech, Obama defended his administration’s drone war against al Qaeda and its allies but made clear he was narrowing the scope of targeted killings, a campaign that has faced growing condemnation at home and abroad.
“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama said at Washington’s National Defense University. “We must recognize however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”
Faced with criticism about the morality of using unmanned aerial vehicles to wage war in distant lands, Obama said the United States will only use drone strikes when a threat is “continuing and 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 new presidential guidance signed by Obama on Wednesday, the Defense Department will take the lead in launching lethal drones, as opposed to the current practice of the CIA taking charge.
That would subject drone operations to more scrutiny from Congress and might lead to the Pentagon taking over drone operations in Yemen, but not in Pakistan where the CIA is likely to still run the unmanned aerial vehicles program.
Obama appears intent on confronting human rights and civil liberties challenges that threaten to stain his own legacy if left unresolved in his second term.
“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands,” he said.
Republican opponents accused him of giving in to terrorism.
“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory. Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit,” Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia said.
The use by the United States of armed drone aircraft to attack extremists has increased tensions with countries such as Pakistan.