President Obama Defends 'Just War' Using Drones

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman in Boston, this is The World. It's hard to discuss something when you don't know the full details, and until today that's sort of been the deal with America's drone policy. But today President Obama shed new light on when and how the U.S. uses unmanned aerial vehicles to target militants and terrorism suspects abroad. Obama spoke at the National Defense University in Washington, outlining his strategy for combating threats to national security.

President Obama: We have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today's threats and how we should confront them.

Werman: There were two big topics in that speech that we're going to focus on, drones, which we just mentioned, and the President's renewed pledge to close a prison in Guantanamo Bay. The World's Arun Rath joins us to break down the president's speech. Thanks for coming in Arun.

Arun Rath: Thanks Marco.

Werman: Now in spite of all the controversy, or perhaps, because of it, the president has had practically nothing to say in public about drone operations until today. So, first let's hear him outlining some of the issues.

Obama: this new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.

Werman: Yeah, big questions indeed. So Arun, how did the president say he'd answer the profound questions?

Rath: Well, it's interesting. It seemed like there was a lot more in there about starting a process than really about filling in a lot of gaps and details. We wanted to hear something more about the command and decision process about this. We heard the president has come out with a, there's a paper, they've created a legal framework, he signed it. We don't see it yet. We don't know what it is. He talked about establishing more oversight for the drone strikes and starting a dialogue with Congress, but he didn't say exactly what that would be. Talked about forms that it might take, that it could take the form of a special court, special oversight. Possibilities, the talk, the beginning of dialogue, but not really clear answers on some clarity on this.

Werman: So you didn't really feel that you got a clear sense of what the changes are going to be?

Rath: No, there was a lot of talk coming in today about there was going to be a transferring of power for drone strikes moving away from the CIA more into the military's hands. There were no details like that in his speech. None of the nitty gritty sort of stuff that we might have been expecting.

Werman: Now President Obama said that the use of drones has been legal. He cited the Congressional act that authorizes their use. He also says that in the last four years he's been working to codify this but, I'm just wondering, when did the White House realize that the self-defense notion wasn't really working?

Rath: You know, it's interesting, because President Obama brought up the authorization for the use of military force, going back to post 9/11, and he himself pointed out that it's sort of getting to strain the justification for that at this stage. And he talked about wanting to revisit that actually with Congress. That was sort of surprising.

Werman: Arun, let's move over to the topic of Guantanamo Bay and the president's renewed pledge to close it. Let's listen to what he had to say about that.

Obama: And given my administration's relentless pursuit of Al Qaeda's leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened. [Audience member yells out] Today [applause] so,

Werman: Alright, Arun we heard there a heckler. Tell us what was going on.

Rath: That was probably the most remarkable moment. Well, I say a moment, it actually extended because she interrupted him several more times. It was amazing that she was able to talk to the extent that she was.
He talked about his desire to close Guantanamo, and she shouted out with you can close Guantanamo today, clearly some anger that he wasn't taking more control of the situation. Which in context, he was actually saying, he wasn't saying, he had a specific plan, didn't have statements he was going to go to. Again, he was saying he wanted to engage with Congress, and he called on Congress to lift the restrictions on transferring prisoners, but didn't talk about specific acts that he would take beyond appointing a new envoy to speed up the transfer for detainees.

Werman: If the idea is to close the prison at Guantanamo is pushing it to Congress a solution? Will that work?

Rath: Well, he needs Congress to do that, but there are things that he could do. There's discussion that he might even be able to, through waivers, be able to still transfer the detainees, but he needs the help of Congress.

Werman: Arun, was there anything you were expecting to hear from the president but didn't today?

Rath: Well, again, we didn't really hear much about the specifics about the drone program transferring who was actually making these decisions, whether it's going to be more of the CIA or the military. And in terms of Guantanamo, again, he talked about his desire, talked about engaging with Congress, but there's not much of a specific plan to actually get from A to B, and close down the facility there.

Werman: Well, The World's Arun Rath. Thanks for the input.

Rath: Thanks Marco.