His speech won approval from civil rights groups who for years were rankled by his extensive dependence on drone killings and unfulfilled campaign promise to shutter Guantanamo Bay.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the broad changes Mr. Obama is advocating “encouraging and noteworthy” but pushed for ending the drone program completely and for the prompt transfer and release of Guantanamo detainees who pose no national security threat.
“The president is right to say that we cannot be on a war footing forever — 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,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.
Mr. Obama pledged to push for restrictions on who would be targeted in drone strikes and defended the program. He said the U.S. prefers to capture suspected terrorists alive but sometimes that is not possible.
Key members of Congress, he said, are notified of each drone attack.
“It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” he said.
“Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” he said.
Although Mr. Obama has complete control over curtailing drone strikes as commander in chief, he will face fierce resistance in Congress over many aspects of his new road map for the fight against terrorism.
The original premise for opening the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention — was found unconstitutional five years ago, Mr. Obama said.
“In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo,” he said.
The Guantanamo Bay facility currently holds 166 prisoners, the majority of whom are Yemeni, and 86 of them have been cleared for transfer as long as security restrictions are met. The detainees have languished in the prison for years, and more than half of them have been engaging in hunger strikes to draw attention to their uncertain fate.
The Obama administration was forced to stop the transfers to Yemen after learning that a botched airline bomb plot on Christmas Day in 2009 was originated by a Nigerian militant with ties to Yemen who concealed explosives in his underwear.
Mr. Obama said Thursday that the Yemenis’ transfers will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Senior administration officials said he intends to restart transfers with 30 non-Yemeni detainees. As part of the process, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must sign off on a national-security waiver affirming that the transfer is in the interests of the country and that the risk of recidivism is small or has been mitigated.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Yemen is not stable enough to be able to handle the detainees’ return.
“Well, guess what, between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they’re more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not,” he said. “If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, we’d be just like turning them loose.”