President Obama had said that al Qaeda is nearly defeated and the war on terrorism has changed since he took office, and that demands a broad rethink that includes scaling down drone attacks, transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay and revisiting the 2001 congressional resolution that set the country on perpetual war footing.
After the death of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, al Qaeda has been decimated, scattered across the North Africa and the Middle East and able to launch only small-scale attacks, Mr. Obama told an audience gathered at the National Defense University in Washington.
“America is at a crossroads,” he said. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”
Senior administration officials went further by telling reporters that Mr. Obama wants to jettison the whole mindset that the U.S. is still engaged in a war on terrorism.
“The president has indicated and will indicate again that he rejects the notion of global war on terrorism, which is an amorphous definition that applies to a tactic,” one official said.
Republicans said the war on terrorism looks different from what it did in 2001 but it’s premature to declare victory.
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“The justification for closing Gitmo is that we’ve destroyed the al Qaeda leadership and we’re relentless in our pursuit of terrorists. That is not a good justification, because that is not true,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “The enemy is morphing. It is spreading. There are more theaters of conflict today than there have been in several years.”
In making his case, the president gave a new description for the state of al Qaeda. He said the “core of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on a path to defeat.”
On the campaign trail last year, he repeatedly boasted that all of “al Qaeda was on the run” and during a fundraiser after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, declared that “al Qaeda is on its heels.”
Mr. Obama also broadly ruled out the possibility of al Qaeda having a direct role in the Benghazi terrorist attack as well as the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 others.
He said al Qaeda’s “remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”
The president shifted the conversation back to foreign policy as he faces burgeoning scandals at home over IRS scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, and over his Justice Department’s decision to subpoena phone records from journalists at The Associated Press.
Mr. Obama said he has ordered Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review the policy and convene a meeting with media representatives, with the goal of making sure reporters don’t face legal troubles for doing their jobs.
He also called for the country to revisit the congressional resolution authorizing military force to go after terrorists in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The president said he would like to “ultimately repeal” that resolution but didn’t say when.
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.”