US President Barack Obama has defended his administration’s use of drones as legal, effective, and just.
“We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war,” Obama said in a major policy speech at Washington’s National Defense University on Thursday.
“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” he pointed out, noting that “We must recognize however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11,” he said.
The US president claimed the strikes have been effective in targeting militants and have made the United States a safer country.
Obama outlined the legal guidelines surrounding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to wage war in distant lands.
“I don’t not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen…Nor should any president deploy armed drones over US soil. But when a US citizen goes abroad to wage war against American and is actively plotting to kill US citizens…his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team,” he said.
On Wednesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted for the first time that four US citizens were murdered in assassination drone attacks conducted by the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen since 2011.
In a letter to Congressional leaders, Holder said that the US government had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.
“The decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki was lawful, it was considered, and it was just,” Holder wrote, claiming that Anwar al-Awlaki was the inspiration for several plots against the United States.
The letter also said that the US had killed three other US citizens: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman, who was also killed in Yemen in October 2011; and Jude Kenan Mohammad, who was reportedly killed in November of the same year in a strike in Pakistan.
In February 2013, a number of US lawmakers expressed concern about Obama’s use of assassination drones to kill US citizens overseas and the secrecy in legal justifications for the targeted killings.
“The same president who opposes the detention of foreign terrorists, who opposes the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on foreign terrorists, and who attempted to bring foreign terrorists to trial in New York City is now personally approving the killing of Americans,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte said.
The lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee also criticized Obama’s secrecy in laying out legal justifications for the attacks.
“To date, the administration has not even acknowledged that this program exists, let alone provided this committee with the information it requires to examine the legality of the program,” said Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.
Washington uses assassination drones in several countries, claiming that they target “terrorists”. According to witnesses, however, the attacks have mostly led to massive civilian casualties.
Obama also touched on the issue of the US-run Guantanamo prison in Cuba.
He called the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
During the speech, Obama was heckled over his failure to close the prison.
The heckler, identified as 60-year-old Medea Benjamin, is a political activist and founder of anti-war organization Code Pink– a women-initiated group for peace and social justice working to end US-funded wars and occupations around the world.
Benjamin yelled from behind a bank of cameras before security removed her from the hall.
The Guantanamo detention facility was initially established on January 11, 2002 by former US President George W. Bush to hold suspects captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Obama famously promised in early 2009 to close the military’s detention facility within 12 months, but four years on, the controversial prison remains open. He has put the blame on Congress for his failure to make good on his promise.