Obama defends drone strikes ‘in last resort’

US president says there must be ‘near certainty’ no civilians would be harmed

A demonstrator adjusts a sign reading “Stop Killer Drones” hung on a mock drone at the gates of Fort McNair where US president Barack Obama spoke yesterday. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A demonstrator adjusts a sign reading “Stop Killer Drones” hung on a mock drone at the gates of Fort McNair where US president Barack Obama spoke yesterday. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Fri, May 24, 2013, 01:00

US president Barack Obama has defended the use of drone strikes as a “just war” against militants, including American citizens abroad, but “waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defence.”

In a highly anticipated speech at a university in Washington, the president said there must be “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed or injured before any strike is taken, though he admitted it is “a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties”.

As part of his renewed effort to close the controversial US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the president also lifted the moratorium on prison transfers to Yemen, the home country for many inmates.

He defended the use of drone strikes saying the US was at war with an organisation that “right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first”.

He acknowledged the contentious legal and moral conundrums in the debate over the US use of drone strikes in overseas locations against suspected militants.

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defence cannot be the end of the discussion,” he said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”


Policy shift
Setting out a future policy shift in America’s post-911 counter-terrorism efforts, the president said the US was at “a crossroads” in its fight against militants and that America would be willing to increase oversight over its drone strikes.

He said he was willing to make lethal government attacks more accountable to Congress after releasing further information about the deaths of US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Americans in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

“For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process,” he said. “Nor should any president deploy armed drones over US soil.”

A “perpetual war” involving drone strikes, the use of special forces or troop deployments would prove “self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.

As the president moved on to speak about his plans to close Guantánamo, fulfilling a promise made in his first weeks in the White House, he was interrupted by a heckler protesting about the hunger strike of more than 100 prisoners at the prison.

“I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about,” he said. Calling again for Congress to help close Guantánamo, he said the prison “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”