Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama defends drone strikes

But says civilian deaths will 'haunt' him

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama sought to move the U.S. beyond the war effort of the past dozen years, defining a narrower terror threat from smaller networks and homegrown extremists rather than the grandiose plots of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Obama also offered his most vigorous public defence yet of drone strikes as legal, effective and necessary.

"Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror," the president said in a speech at the National Defence University. "What we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend."

Obama also implored Congress to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba and pledged to allow greater oversight of the unmanned drone program. But he plans to keep the most lethal efforts with the unmanned aircraft under the CIA's control.

Obama's address came amid increased pressure from Congress on both issues. A rare coalition of bipartisan lawmakers has pressed for more openness and more oversight of the highly secretive targeted drone strikes. Liberal lawmakers have pointed to a hunger strike of more than 100 prisoners at Guantanamo -- the military earlier this month was force-feeding 32 of them -- in pressing for stalled efforts to close the detention centre to be renewed.

The president cast the drone program as crucial in a counterterror effort that will rely less on the widespread deployment of U.S. troops as the war in Afghanistan winds down. He said he is deeply troubled by the civilians unintentionally killed.

"For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live," he said. Before any strike, he said, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."

In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by drones since 2003, according to the New America Foundation, which maintains a database of the strikes. However, the secrecy surrounding the program makes it impossible for the public to know for sure how many people have been killed and how many were targets.

The Justice Department revealed for the first time Wednesday four U.S. citizens had been killed in U.S. drone strikes abroad. Just one was an intended target -- Anwar al-Awlaki, who officials say had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. The other three Americans, including al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, were unintended victims.

Some Republicans criticized Obama as underestimating the strength of al-Qaida and for proposing to repeal the president's broad authorization to use military force against the nation's enemies -- powers granted to George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaida," Republican Sen. John McCain told reporters. "To somehow argue that al-Qaida is on the run comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible. Al-Qaida is expanding all over the Middle East, from Mali to Yemen and all places in between."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2013 A22

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