Full text of President Obama’s Speech at National Defense University

The Future of our Fight against Ter­ror­ism

EMBARGOEDRemarks of Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma – As Pre­pared for Deliv­ery

Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty

May 23, 2013


As Pre­pared for Deliv­ery –


It’s an hon­or to return to the Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty. Here, at Fort McNair, Amer­i­cans have served in uni­form since 1791– stand­ing guard in the ear­ly days of the Repub­lic, and con­tem­plat­ing the future of war­fare here in the 21stcen­tu­ry.

For over two cen­turies, the Unit­ed States has been bound togeth­er by found­ing doc­u­ments that defined who we are as Amer­i­cans, and served as our com­pass through every type of change. Mat­ters of war and peace are no dif­fer­ent. Amer­i­cans are deeply ambiva­lent about war, but hav­ing fought for our inde­pen­dence, we know that a price must be paid for free­dom. From the Civ­il War, to our strug­gle against fas­cism, and through the long, twi­light strug­gle of the Cold War, bat­tle­fields have changed, and tech­nol­o­gy has evolved. But our com­mit­ment to Con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ples has weath­ered every war, and every war has come to an end.

With the col­lapse of the Berlin Wall, a new dawn of democ­ra­cy took hold abroad, and a decade of peace and pros­per­i­ty arrived at home. For a moment, it seemed the 21st cen­tu­ry would be a tran­quil time. Then, on Sep­tem­ber 11th 2001, we were shak­en out of com­pla­cen­cy. Thou­sands were tak­en from us, as clouds of fire, met­al and ash descend­ed upon a sun-filled morn­ing. This was a dif­fer­ent kind of war. No armies came to our shores, and our mil­i­tary was not the prin­ci­pal tar­get. Instead, a group of ter­ror­ists came to kill as many civil­ians as they could.

And so our nation went to war. We have now been at war for well over a decade. I won’t review the full his­to­ry. What’s clear is that we quick­ly drove al Qae­da out of Afghanistan, but then shift­ed our focus and began a new war in Iraq. This car­ried grave con­se­quences for our fight against al Qae­da, our stand­ing in the world, and – to this day – our inter­ests in a vital region.

Mean­while, we strength­ened our defens­es – hard­en­ing tar­gets, tight­en­ing trans­porta­tion secu­ri­ty, and giv­ing law enforce­ment new tools to pre­vent ter­ror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused incon­ve­nience. But some, like expand­ed sur­veil­lance, raised dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the bal­ance we strike between our inter­ests in secu­ri­ty and our val­ues of pri­va­cy. And in some cas­es, I believe we com­pro­mised our basic val­ues – by using tor­ture to inter­ro­gate our ene­mies, and detain­ing indi­vid­u­als in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qae­da, but also sought to change its course. We relent­less­ly tar­get­ed al Qaeda’s lead­er­ship. We end­ed the war in Iraq, and brought near­ly 150,000 troops home. We pur­sued a new strat­e­gy in Afghanistan, and increased our train­ing of Afghan forces. We unequiv­o­cal­ly banned tor­ture, affirmed our com­mit­ment to civil­ian courts, worked to align our poli­cies with the rule of law, and expand­ed our con­sul­ta­tions with Con­gress.

Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieu­tenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the Unit­ed States, and our home­land is more secure. Few­er of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will con­tin­ue to come home. Our alliances are strong, and so is our stand­ing in the world. In sum, we are safer because of our efforts.

Now make no mis­take: our nation is still threat­ened by ter­ror­ists. From Beng­hazi to Boston, we have been trag­i­cal­ly remind­ed of that truth. We must rec­og­nize, how­ev­er, that the threat has shift­ed and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of expe­ri­ence to draw from, now is the time to ask our­selves hard ques­tions – about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should con­front them.

These ques­tions mat­ter to every Amer­i­can. For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a tril­lion dol­lars on war, explod­ing our deficits and con­strain­ing our abil­i­ty to nation build here at home. Our ser­vice-mem­bers and their fam­i­lies have sac­ri­ficed far more on our behalf. Near­ly 7,000 Amer­i­cans have made the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. Many more have left a part of them­selves on the bat­tle­field, or brought the shad­ows of bat­tle back home. From our use of drones to the deten­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects, the deci­sions we are mak­ing will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our chil­dren.

So Amer­i­ca is at a cross­roads. 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.” Nei­ther I, nor any Pres­i­dent, can promise the total defeat of ter­ror. We will nev­er erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every dan­ger to our open soci­ety. 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. To define that strat­e­gy, we must make deci­sions based not on fear, but hard-earned wis­dom. And that begins with under­stand­ing the threat we face.

Today, the core of al Qae­da in Afghanistan and Pak­istan is on a path to defeat. Their 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. Instead, what we’ve seen is the emer­gence of var­i­ous al Qae­da affil­i­ates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Soma­lia to North Africa, the threat today is more dif­fuse, with Al Qaeda’s affil­i­ate in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la – AQAP –the most active in plot­ting against our home­land. While none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11 they have con­tin­ued to plot acts of ter­ror, like the attempt to blow up an air­plane on Christ­mas Day in 2009.

Unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extrem­ists to gain a foothold in coun­tries like Libya and Syr­ia. Here, too, there are dif­fer­ences from 9/11. In some cas­es, we con­front state-spon­sored net­works like Hizbol­lah that engage in acts of ter­ror to achieve polit­i­cal goals. Oth­ers are sim­ply col­lec­tions of local mili­tias or extrem­ists inter­est­ed in seiz­ing ter­ri­to­ry. While we are vig­i­lant for signs that these groups may pose a transna­tion­al threat, most are focused on oper­at­ing in the coun­tries and regions where they are based. That means we will face more local­ized threats like those we saw in Beng­hazi, or at the BP oil facil­i­ty in Alge­ria, in which local oper­a­tives – in loose affil­i­a­tion with region­al net­works – launch peri­od­ic attacks against West­ern diplo­mats, com­pa­nies, and oth­er soft tar­gets, or resort to kid­nap­ping and oth­er crim­i­nal enter­pris­es to fund their oper­a­tions.

Final­ly, we face a real threat from rad­i­cal­ized indi­vid­u­als here in the Unit­ed States. Whether it’s a shoot­er at a Sikh Tem­ple in Wis­con­sin; a plane fly­ing into a build­ing in Texas; or the extrem­ists who killed 168 peo­ple at the Fed­er­al Build­ing in Okla­homa City – Amer­i­ca has con­front­ed many forms of vio­lent extrem­ism in our time. Deranged or alien­at­ed indi­vid­u­als – often U.S. cit­i­zens or legal res­i­dents – can do enor­mous dam­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly when inspired by larg­er notions of vio­lent jihad. That pull towards extrem­ism appears to have led to the shoot­ing at Fort Hood, and the bomb­ing of the Boston Marathon.

Lethal yet less capa­ble al Qae­da affil­i­ates. Threats to diplo­mat­ic facil­i­ties and busi­ness­es abroad. Home­grown extrem­ists. This is the future of ter­ror­ism. We must take these threats seri­ous­ly, and do all that we can to con­front them. But as we shape our response, we have to rec­og­nize that the scale of this threat close­ly resem­bles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. In the 1980s, we lost Amer­i­cans to ter­ror­ism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Bar­racks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a dis­co in Berlin; and on Pan Am Flight 103 over Locker­bie. In the 1990s, we lost Amer­i­cans to ter­ror­ism at the World Trade Cen­ter; at our mil­i­tary facil­i­ties in Sau­di Ara­bia; and at our Embassy in Kenya. These attacks were all dead­ly, and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smart­ly and pro­por­tion­al­ly, these threats need not rise to the lev­el that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

More­over, we must rec­og­nize that these threats don’t arise in a vac­u­um. Most, though not all, of the ter­ror­ism we face is fueled by a com­mon ide­ol­o­gy – a belief by some extrem­ists that Islam is in con­flict with the Unit­ed States and the West, and that vio­lence against West­ern tar­gets, includ­ing civil­ians, is jus­ti­fied in pur­suit of a larg­er cause. Of course, this ide­ol­o­gy is based on a lie, for the Unit­ed States is not at war with Islam; and this ide­ol­o­gy is reject­ed by the vast major­i­ty of Mus­lims, who are the most fre­quent vic­tims of ter­ror­ist acts.

Nev­er­the­less, this ide­ol­o­gy per­sists, and in an age in which ideas and images can trav­el the globe in an instant, our response to ter­ror­ism can­not depend on mil­i­tary or law enforce­ment alone. We need all ele­ments of nation­al pow­er to win a bat­tle of wills and ideas. So let me dis­cuss the com­po­nents of such a com­pre­hen­sive counter-ter­ror­ism strat­e­gy.

First, we must fin­ish the work of defeat­ing al Qae­da and its asso­ci­at­ed forces.

In Afghanistan, we will com­plete our tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty. Our troops will come home. Our com­bat mis­sion will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan gov­ern­ment to train secu­ri­ty forces, and sus­tain a counter-ter­ror­ism force which ensures that al Qae­da can nev­er again estab­lish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.

Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a bound­less ‘glob­al war on ter­ror’ – but rather as a series of per­sis­tent, tar­get­ed efforts to dis­man­tle spe­cif­ic net­works of vio­lent extrem­ists that threat­en Amer­i­ca. In many cas­es, this will involve part­ner­ships with oth­er coun­tries. Thou­sands of Pak­istani sol­diers have lost their lives fight­ing extrem­ists. In Yemen, we are sup­port­ing secu­ri­ty forces that have reclaimed ter­ri­to­ry from AQAP. In Soma­lia, we helped a coali­tion of African nations push al Shabaab out of its strong­holds. In Mali, we are pro­vid­ing mil­i­tary aid to a French-led inter­ven­tion to push back al Qae­da in the Maghreb, and help the peo­ple of Mali reclaim their future.

Much of our best counter-ter­ror­ism coop­er­a­tion results in the gath­er­ing and shar­ing of intel­li­gence; the arrest and pros­e­cu­tion of ter­ror­ists. That’s how a Soma­li ter­ror­ist appre­hend­ed off the coast of Yemen is now in prison in New York. That’s how we worked with Euro­pean allies to dis­rupt plots from Den­mark to Ger­many to the Unit­ed King­dom. That’s how intel­li­gence col­lect­ed with Sau­di Ara­bia helped us stop a car­go plane from being blown up over the Atlantic.

But despite our strong pref­er­ence for the deten­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of ter­ror­ists, some­times this approach is fore­closed. Al Qae­da and its affil­i­ates try to gain a foothold in some of the most dis­tant and unfor­giv­ing places on Earth. They take refuge in remote trib­al regions. They hide in caves and walled com­pounds. They train in emp­ty deserts and rugged moun­tains.

In some of these places – such as parts of Soma­lia and Yemen – the state has only the most ten­u­ous reach into the ter­ri­to­ry. In oth­er cas­es, the state lacks the capac­i­ty or will to take action. It is also not pos­si­ble for Amer­i­ca to sim­ply deploy a team of Spe­cial Forces to cap­ture every ter­ror­ist. And even when such an approach may be pos­si­ble, there are places where it would pose pro­found risks to our troops and local civil­ians– where a ter­ror­ist com­pound can­not be breached with­out trig­ger­ing a fire­fight with sur­round­ing trib­al com­mu­ni­ties that pose no threat to us, or when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trig­ger a major inter­na­tion­al cri­sis.

To put it anoth­er way, our oper­a­tion in Pak­istan against Osama bin Laden can­not be the norm. The risks in that case were immense; the like­li­hood of cap­ture, although our pref­er­ence, was remote giv­en the cer­tain­ty of resis­tance; the fact that we did not find our­selves con­front­ed with civil­ian casu­al­ties, or embroiled in an extend­ed fire­fight, was a tes­ta­ment to the metic­u­lous plan­ning and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of our Spe­cial Forces – but also depend­ed on some luck. And even then, the cost to our rela­tion­ship with Pak­istan – and the back­lash among the Pak­istani pub­lic over encroach­ment on their ter­ri­to­ry – was so severe that we are just now begin­ning to rebuild this impor­tant part­ner­ship.

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. As was true in pre­vi­ous armed con­flicts, 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.

Let me address these ques­tions. To begin with, our actions are effec­tive. Don’t take my word for it. In the intel­li­gence gath­ered at bin Laden’s com­pound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We can­not fight air strikes with explo­sives.” Oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tions from al Qae­da oper­a­tives con­firm this as well. Dozens of high­ly skilled al Qae­da com­man­ders, train­ers, bomb mak­ers, and oper­a­tives have been tak­en off the bat­tle­field. Plots have been dis­rupt­ed that would have tar­get­ed inter­na­tion­al avi­a­tion, U.S. tran­sit sys­tems, Euro­pean cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Sim­ply put, these strikes have saved lives.

More­over, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. With­in a week, Con­gress over­whelm­ing­ly autho­rized the use of force. Under domes­tic law, and inter­na­tion­al law, the Unit­ed States is at war with al Qae­da, the Tal­iban, and their asso­ci­at­ed forces. We are at war with an orga­ni­za­tion that right now would kill as many Amer­i­cans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged pro­por­tion­al­ly, in last resort, and in self-defense.

And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legit­i­mate claim of self-defense can­not be the end of the dis­cus­sion. To say a mil­i­tary tac­tic is legal, or even effec­tive, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the tech­nol­o­gy to strike half a world away also demands the dis­ci­pline to con­strain that pow­er – or risk abus­ing it. That’s why, over the last four years, my Admin­is­tra­tion has worked vig­or­ous­ly to estab­lish a frame­work that gov­erns our use of force against ter­ror­ists – insist­ing upon clear guide­lines, over­sight and account­abil­i­ty that is now cod­i­fied in Pres­i­den­tial Pol­i­cy Guid­ance that I signed yes­ter­day.

In the Afghan war the­ater, we must sup­port our troops until the tran­si­tion is com­plete at the end of 2014. That means we will con­tin­ue to take strikes against high val­ue al Qae­da tar­gets, but also against forces that are mass­ing to sup­port attacks on coali­tion forces. How­ev­er, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force pro­tec­tion, and the progress we have made against core al Qae­da will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan the­ater, we only tar­get al Qae­da and its asso­ci­at­ed forces. Even then, the use of drones is heav­i­ly con­strained. Amer­i­ca does not take strikes when we have the abil­i­ty to cap­ture indi­vid­ual ter­ror­ists — our pref­er­ence is always to detain, inter­ro­gate, and pros­e­cute them. Amer­i­ca can­not take strikes wher­ev­er we choose – our actions are bound by con­sul­ta­tions with part­ners, and respect for state sov­er­eign­ty. Amer­i­ca does not take strikes to pun­ish indi­vid­u­als – we act against ter­ror­ists who pose a con­tin­u­ing and immi­nent threat to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, and when there are no oth­er gov­ern­ments capa­ble of effec­tive­ly address­ing the threat. And before any strike is tak­en, there must be near-cer­tain­ty that no civil­ians will be killed or injured – the high­est stan­dard we can set.

This last point is crit­i­cal, because much of the crit­i­cism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – under­stand­ably cen­ters on reports of civil­ian casu­al­ties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assess­ments of such casu­al­ties, and non-gov­ern­men­tal reports. Nev­er­the­less, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have result­ed in civil­ian casu­al­ties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the fam­i­lies of those civil­ians, no words or legal con­struct can jus­ti­fy their loss. For me, and those in my chain of com­mand, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunt­ed by the civil­ian casu­al­ties that have occurred through con­ven­tion­al fight­ing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Com­man­der-in-Chief, I must weigh these heart­break­ing tragedies against the alter­na­tives. To do noth­ing in the face of ter­ror­ist net­works would invite far more civil­ian casu­al­ties – not just in our cities at home and facil­i­ties abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kab­ul and Mogadishu – where ter­ror­ists seek a foothold. Let us remem­ber that the ter­ror­ists we are after tar­get civil­ians, and the death toll from their acts of ter­ror­ism against Mus­lims dwarfs any esti­mate of civil­ian casu­al­ties from drone strikes.

Where for­eign gov­ern­ments can­not or will not effec­tive­ly stop ter­ror­ism in their ter­ri­to­ry, the pri­ma­ry alter­na­tive to tar­get­ed, lethal action is the use of con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary options. As I’ve said, even small Spe­cial Oper­a­tions car­ry enor­mous risks. Con­ven­tion­al air­pow­er or mis­siles are far less pre­cise than drones, and like­ly to cause more civil­ian casu­al­ties and local out­rage. And inva­sions of these ter­ri­to­ries lead us to be viewed as occu­py­ing armies; unleash a tor­rent of unin­tend­ed con­se­quences; are dif­fi­cult to con­tain; and ulti­mate­ly empow­er those who thrive on vio­lent con­flict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less like­ly to result in civil­ian deaths, or to cre­ate ene­mies in the Mus­lim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Black­hawks down, more con­fronta­tions with local pop­u­la­tions, and an inevitable mis­sion creep in sup­port of such raids that could eas­i­ly esca­late into new wars.

So yes, the con­flict with al Qae­da, like all armed con­flict, invites tragedy. But by nar­row­ly tar­get­ing our action against those who want to kill us, and not the peo­ple they hide among, we are choos­ing the course of action least like­ly to result in the loss of inno­cent life. Indeed, our efforts must also be mea­sured against the his­to­ry of putting Amer­i­can troops in dis­tant lands among hos­tile pop­u­la­tions. In Viet­nam, hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians died in a war where the bound­aries of bat­tle were blurred. In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the courage and dis­ci­pline of our troops, thou­sands of civil­ians have been killed. So nei­ther con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary action, nor wait­ing for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-har­bor. Nei­ther does a sole reliance on law enforce­ment in ter­ri­to­ries that have no func­tion­ing police or secu­ri­ty ser­vices – and indeed, have no func­tion­ing law.

This is not to say that the risks are not real. Any U.S. mil­i­tary action in for­eign lands risks cre­at­ing more ene­mies, and impacts pub­lic opin­ion over­seas. Our laws con­strain the pow­er of the Pres­i­dent, even dur­ing wartime, and I have tak­en an oath to defend the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States. The very pre­ci­sion of drones strikes, and the nec­es­sary secre­cy involved in such actions can end up shield­ing our gov­ern­ment from the pub­lic scruti­ny that a troop deploy­ment invites. It can also lead a Pres­i­dent and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for ter­ror­ism.

For this rea­son, I’ve insist­ed on strong over­sight of all lethal action. After I took office, my Admin­is­tra­tion began brief­ing all strikes out­side of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appro­pri­ate com­mit­tees of Con­gress. Let me repeat that – not only did Con­gress autho­rize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that Amer­i­ca takes. That includes the one instance when we tar­get­ed an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen: Anwar Awla­ki, the chief of exter­nal oper­a­tions for AQAP.

This week, I autho­rized the declas­si­fi­ca­tion of this action, and the deaths of three oth­er Amer­i­cans in drone strikes, to facil­i­tate trans­paren­cy and debate on this issue, and to dis­miss some of the more out­landish claims. For the record, I do not believe it would be con­sti­tu­tion­al for the gov­ern­ment to tar­get and kill any U.S. cit­i­zen – with a drone, or a shot­gun – with­out due process. Nor should any Pres­i­dent deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

But when a U.S. cit­i­zen goes abroad to wage war against Amer­i­ca – and is active­ly plot­ting to kill U.S. cit­i­zens; and when nei­ther the Unit­ed States, nor our part­ners are in a posi­tion to cap­ture him before he car­ries out a plot – his cit­i­zen­ship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shoot­ing down on an inno­cent crowd should be pro­tect­ed from a swat team

That’s who Anwar Awla­ki was – he was con­tin­u­ous­ly try­ing to kill peo­ple. He helped over­see the 2010 plot to det­o­nate explo­sive devices on two U.S. bound car­go planes. He was involved in plan­ning to blow up an air­lin­er in 2009. When Farouk Abdul­mu­tal­lab – the Christ­mas Day bomber – went to Yemen in 2009, Awla­ki host­ed him, approved his sui­cide oper­a­tion, and helped him tape a mar­tyr­dom video to be shown after the attack. His last instruc­tions were to blow up the air­plane when it was over Amer­i­can soil. I would have detained and pros­e­cut­ed Awla­ki if we cap­tured him before he car­ried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as Pres­i­dent, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not autho­rized the strike that took out Awla­ki.

Of course, the tar­get­ing of any Amer­i­cans rais­es con­sti­tu­tion­al issues that are not present in oth­er strikes – which is why my Admin­is­tra­tion sub­mit­ted infor­ma­tion about Awla­ki to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice months before Awla­ki was killed, and briefed the Con­gress before this strike as well. But the high thresh­old that we have set for tak­ing lethal action applies to all poten­tial ter­ror­ist tar­gets, regard­less of whether or not they are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. This thresh­old respects the inher­ent dig­ni­ty of every human life. Along­side the deci­sion to put our men and women in uni­form in harm’s way, the deci­sion to use force against indi­vid­u­als or groups – even against a sworn ene­my of the Unit­ed States – is the hard­est thing I do as Pres­i­dent. But these deci­sions must be made, giv­en my respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

Going for­ward, I have asked my Admin­is­tra­tion to review pro­pos­als to extend over­sight of lethal actions out­side of war­zones that go beyond our report­ing to Con­gress. Each option has virtues in the­o­ry, but pos­es dif­fi­cul­ties in prac­tice. For exam­ple, the estab­lish­ment of a spe­cial court to eval­u­ate and autho­rize lethal action has the ben­e­fit of bring­ing a third branch of gov­ern­ment into the process, but rais­es seri­ous con­sti­tu­tion­al issues about pres­i­den­tial and judi­cial author­i­ty. Anoth­er idea that’s been sug­gest­ed – the estab­lish­ment of an inde­pen­dent over­sight board in the exec­u­tive branch – avoids those prob­lems, but may intro­duce a lay­er of bureau­cra­cy into nation­al-secu­ri­ty deci­sion-mak­ing, with­out inspir­ing addi­tion­al pub­lic con­fi­dence in the process. Despite these chal­lenges, I look for­ward to active­ly engag­ing Con­gress to explore these – and oth­er – options for increased over­sight.

I believe, how­ev­er, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larg­er dis­cus­sion about a com­pre­hen­sive counter-ter­ror­ism strat­e­gy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone can­not make us safe. We can­not use force every­where that a rad­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy takes root; and in the absence of a strat­e­gy that reduces the well-spring of extrem­ism, a per­pet­u­al war – through drones or Spe­cial Forces or troop deploy­ments – will prove self-defeat­ing, and alter our coun­try in trou­bling ways.

So the next ele­ment of our strat­e­gy involves address­ing the under­ly­ing griev­ances and con­flicts that feed extrem­ism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and com­plex under­tak­ing. We must be hum­ble in our expec­ta­tion that we can quick­ly resolve deep root­ed prob­lems like pover­ty and sec­tar­i­an hatred. More­over, no two coun­tries are alike, and some will under­go chaot­ic change before things get bet­ter. But our secu­ri­ty and val­ues demand that we make the effort.

This means patient­ly sup­port­ing tran­si­tions to democ­ra­cy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peace­ful real­iza­tion of indi­vid­ual aspi­ra­tions will serve as a rebuke to vio­lent extrem­ists. We must strength­en the oppo­si­tion in Syr­ia, while iso­lat­ing extrem­ist ele­ments – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyran­ny of ter­ror­ism. We are work­ing to pro­mote peace between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape atti­tudes in the region. And we must help coun­tries mod­ern­ize economies, upgrade edu­ca­tion, and encour­age entre­pre­neur­ship – because Amer­i­can lead­er­ship has always been ele­vat­ed by our abil­i­ty to con­nect with peo­ples’ hopes, and not sim­ply their fears.

Suc­cess on these fronts requires sus­tained engage­ment, but it will also require resources. I know that for­eign aid is one of the least pop­u­lar expen­di­tures – even though it amounts to less than one per­cent of the fed­er­al bud­get. But for­eign assis­tance can­not be viewed as char­i­ty. It is fun­da­men­tal to our nation­al secu­ri­ty, and any sen­si­ble long-term strat­e­gy to bat­tle extrem­ism. More­over, for­eign assis­tance is a tiny frac­tion of what we spend fight­ing wars that our assis­tance might ulti­mate­ly pre­vent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be train­ing secu­ri­ty forces in Libya, main­tain­ing peace agree­ments between Israel and its neigh­bors, feed­ing the hun­gry in Yemen, build­ing schools in Pak­istan, and cre­at­ing reser­voirs of good­will that mar­gin­al­ize extrem­ists.

Amer­i­ca can­not car­ry out this work if we do not have diplo­mats serv­ing in dan­ger­ous places. Over the past decade, we have strength­ened secu­ri­ty at our Embassies, and I am imple­ment­ing every rec­om­men­da­tion of the Account­abil­i­ty Review Board which found unac­cept­able fail­ures in Beng­hazi. I have called on Con­gress to ful­ly fund these efforts to bol­ster secu­ri­ty, hard­en facil­i­ties, improve intel­li­gence, and facil­i­tate a quick­er response time from our mil­i­tary if a cri­sis emerges.

But even after we take these steps, some irre­ducible risks to our diplo­mats will remain. This is the price of being the world’s most pow­er­ful nation, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a wave of change wash­es over the Arab World. And in bal­anc­ing the trade-offs between secu­ri­ty and active diplo­ma­cy, I firm­ly believe that any retreat from chal­leng­ing regions will only increase the dan­gers we face in the long run.

Tar­get­ed action against ter­ror­ists. Effec­tive part­ner­ships. Diplo­mat­ic engage­ment and assis­tance. Through such a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy we can sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the chances of large scale attacks on the home­land and mit­i­gate threats to Amer­i­cans over­seas. As we guard against dan­gers from abroad, how­ev­er, we can­not neglect the daunt­ing chal­lenge of ter­ror­ism from with­in our bor­ders.

As I said ear­li­er, this threat is not new. But tech­nol­o­gy and the Inter­net increase its fre­quen­cy and lethal­i­ty. Today, a per­son can con­sume hate­ful pro­pa­gan­da, com­mit them­selves to a vio­lent agen­da, and learn how to kill with­out leav­ing their home. To address this threat, two years ago my Admin­is­tra­tion did a com­pre­hen­sive review, and engaged with law enforce­ment. The best way to pre­vent vio­lent extrem­ism is to work with the Mus­lim Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty – which has con­sis­tent­ly reject­ed ter­ror­ism – to iden­ti­fy signs of rad­i­cal­iza­tion, and part­ner with law enforce­ment when an indi­vid­ual is drift­ing towards vio­lence. And these part­ner­ships can only work when we rec­og­nize that Mus­lims are a fun­da­men­tal part of the Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. Indeed, the suc­cess of Amer­i­can Mus­lims, and our deter­mi­na­tion to guard against any encroach­ments on their civ­il lib­er­ties, is the ulti­mate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam.

Indeed, thwart­ing home­grown plots presents par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges in part because of our proud com­mit­ment to civ­il lib­er­ties for all who call Amer­i­ca home. That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep work­ing hard to strike the appro­pri­ate bal­ance between our need for secu­ri­ty and pre­serv­ing those free­doms that make us who we are. That means review­ing the author­i­ties of law enforce­ment, so we can inter­cept new types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and build in pri­va­cy pro­tec­tions to pre­vent abuse. That means that – even after Boston – we do not deport some­one or throw some­one in prison in the absence of evi­dence. That means putting care­ful con­straints on the tools the gov­ern­ment uses to pro­tect sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion, such as the State Secrets doc­trine. And that means final­ly hav­ing a strong Pri­va­cy and Civ­il Lib­er­ties Board to review those issues where our counter-ter­ror­ism efforts and our val­ues may come into ten­sion.

The Jus­tice Department’s inves­ti­ga­tion of nation­al secu­ri­ty leaks offers a recent exam­ple of the chal­lenges involved in strik­ing the right bal­ance between our secu­ri­ty and our open soci­ety. As Com­man­der-in Chief, I believe we must keep infor­ma­tion secret that pro­tects our oper­a­tions and our peo­ple in the field. To do so, we must enforce con­se­quences for those who break the law and breach their com­mit­ment to pro­tect clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion. But a free press is also essen­tial for our democ­ra­cy. I am trou­bled by the pos­si­bil­i­ty that leak inves­ti­ga­tions may chill the inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism that holds gov­ern­ment account­able.

Jour­nal­ists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Con­gress to pass a media shield law to guard against gov­ern­ment over-reach. I have raised these issues with the Attor­ney Gen­er­al, who shares my con­cern. So he has agreed to review exist­ing Depart­ment of Jus­tice guide­lines gov­ern­ing inves­ti­ga­tions that involve reporters, and will con­vene a group of media orga­ni­za­tions to hear their con­cerns as part of that review. And I have direct­ed the Attor­ney Gen­er­al to report back to me by July 12th.

All these issues remind us that the choic­es we make about war can impact – in some­times unin­tend­ed ways – the open­ness and free­dom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Con­gress about the exist­ing Autho­riza­tion to Use Mil­i­tary Force, or AUMF, to deter­mine how we can con­tin­ue to fight ter­ror­ists with­out keep­ing Amer­i­ca on a per­pet­u­al war-time foot­ing.

The AUMF is now near­ly twelve years old. The Afghan War is com­ing to an end. Core al Qae­da is a shell of its for­mer self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every col­lec­tion of thugs that labels them­selves al Qae­da will pose a cred­i­ble threat to the Unit­ed States. Unless we dis­ci­pline our think­ing and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or con­tin­ue to grant Pres­i­dents unbound pow­ers more suit­ed for tra­di­tion­al armed con­flicts between nation states. So I look for­ward to engag­ing Con­gress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple in efforts to refine, and ulti­mate­ly repeal, the AUMF’s man­date. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this man­date fur­ther. Our sys­tem­at­ic effort to dis­man­tle ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions must con­tin­ue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what his­to­ry advis­es. That’s what our democ­ra­cy demands.

And that brings me to my final top­ic: the deten­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects.

To repeat, as a mat­ter of pol­i­cy, the pref­er­ence of the Unit­ed States is to cap­ture ter­ror­ist sus­pects. When we do detain a sus­pect, we inter­ro­gate them. And if the sus­pect can be pros­e­cut­ed, we decide whether to try him in a civil­ian court or a Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion. Dur­ing the past decade, the vast major­i­ty of those detained by our mil­i­tary were cap­tured on the bat­tle­field. In Iraq, we turned over thou­sands of pris­on­ers as we end­ed the war. In Afghanistan, we have tran­si­tioned deten­tion facil­i­ties to the Afghans, as part of the process of restor­ing Afghan sov­er­eign­ty. So we bring law of war deten­tion to an end, and we are com­mit­ted to pros­e­cut­ing ter­ror­ists when­ev­er we can.

The glar­ing excep­tion to this time-test­ed approach is the deten­tion cen­ter at Guan­tanamo Bay. The orig­i­nal premise for open­ing GTMO – that detainees would not be able to chal­lenge their deten­tion – was found uncon­sti­tu­tion­al five years ago. In the mean­time, GTMO 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 GTMO. Dur­ing a time of bud­get cuts, we spend $150 mil­lion each year to imprison 166 peo­ple –almost $1 mil­lion per pris­on­er. And the Depart­ment of Defense esti­mates that we must spend anoth­er $200 mil­lion to keep GTMO open at a time when we are cut­ting invest­ments in edu­ca­tion and research here at home.

As Pres­i­dent, I have tried to close GTMO. I trans­ferred 67 detainees to oth­er coun­tries before Con­gress imposed restric­tions to effec­tive­ly pre­vent us from either trans­fer­ring detainees to oth­er coun­tries, or impris­on­ing them in the Unit­ed States. These restric­tions make no sense. After all, under Pres­i­dent Bush, some 530 detainees were trans­ferred from GTMO with Congress’s sup­port. When I ran for Pres­i­dent the first time, John McCain sup­port­ed clos­ing GTMO.No per­son has ever escaped from one of our super-max or mil­i­tary pris­ons in the Unit­ed States. Our courts have con­vict­ed hun­dreds of peo­ple for ter­ror­ism-relat­ed offens­es, includ­ing some who are more dan­ger­ous than most GTMO detainees. 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 nev­er have been opened.

Today, I once again call on Con­gress to lift the restric­tions on detainee trans­fers from GTMO. I have asked the Depart­ment of Defense to des­ig­nate a site in the Unit­ed States where we can hold mil­i­tary com­mis­sions. I am appoint­ing a new, senior envoy at the State Depart­ment and Defense Depart­ment whose sole respon­si­bil­i­ty will be to achieve the trans­fer of detainees to third coun­tries. I am lift­ing the mora­to­ri­um on detainee trans­fers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the great­est extent pos­si­ble, we will trans­fer detainees who have been cleared to go to oth­er coun­tries. Where appro­pri­ate, we will bring ter­ror­ists to jus­tice in our courts and mil­i­tary jus­tice sys­tem. And we will insist that judi­cial review be avail­able for every detainee.

Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have par­tic­i­pat­ed in dan­ger­ous plots or attacks, but who can­not be pros­e­cut­ed – for exam­ple because the evi­dence against them has been com­pro­mised or is inad­mis­si­ble in a court of law. But once we com­mit to a process of clos­ing GTMO, I am con­fi­dent that this lega­cy prob­lem can be resolved, con­sis­tent with our com­mit­ment to the rule of law.

I know the pol­i­tics are hard. But his­to­ry will cast a harsh judg­ment on this aspect of our fight against ter­ror­ism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imag­ine a future – ten years from now, or twen­ty years from now – when the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is still hold­ing peo­ple who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our coun­try. Look at the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, where we are force-feed­ing detainees who are hold­ing a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that some­thing that our Founders fore­saw? Is that the Amer­i­ca we want to leave to our chil­dren?

Our sense of jus­tice is stronger than that. We have pros­e­cut­ed scores of ter­ror­ists in our courts. That includes Umar Farouk Abdul­mu­tal­lab, who tried to blow up an air­plane over Detroit; and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It is in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsar­naev, who is accused of bomb­ing the Boston Marathon. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is as we speak serv­ing a life sen­tence in a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison here, in the Unit­ed States. In sen­tenc­ing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “the way we treat you…is the mea­sure of our own lib­er­ties.” He went on to point to the Amer­i­can flag that flew in the court­room – “That flag,” he said, “will fly there long after this is all for­got­ten. That flag still stands for free­dom.”

Amer­i­ca, we have faced down dan­gers far greater than al Qae­da. By stay­ing true to the val­ues of our found­ing, and by using our con­sti­tu­tion­al com­pass, we have over­come slav­ery and Civ­il War; fas­cism and com­mu­nism. In just these last few years as Pres­i­dent, I have watched the Amer­i­can peo­ple bounce back from painful reces­sion, mass shoot­ings, and nat­ur­al dis­as­ters like the recent tor­na­dos that dev­as­tat­ed Okla­homa. These events were heart­break­ing; they shook our com­mu­ni­ties to the core. But because of the resilience of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, these events could not come close to break­ing us.

I think of Lau­ren Man­ning, the 9/11 sur­vivor who had severe burns over 80 per­cent of her body, who said, “That’s my real­i­ty. I put a Band-Aid on it, lit­er­al­ly, and I move on.”

I think of the New York­ers who filled Times Square the day after an attempt­ed car bomb as if noth­ing had hap­pened.

I think of the proud Pak­istani par­ents who, after their daugh­ter was invit­ed to the White House, wrote to us, “we have raised an Amer­i­can Mus­lim daugh­ter to dream big and nev­er give up because it does pay off.”


I think of the wound­ed war­riors rebuild­ing their lives, and help­ing oth­er vets to find jobs.


I think of the run­ner plan­ning to do the 2014 Boston Marathon, who said, “Next year, you are going to have more peo­ple than ever. Deter­mi­na­tion is not some­thing to be messed with.”

That’s who the Amer­i­can peo­ple are. Deter­mined, and not to be messed with.

Now, we need a strat­e­gy – and a pol­i­tics –that reflects this resilient spir­it. Our vic­to­ry against ter­ror­ism won’t be mea­sured in a sur­ren­der cer­e­mo­ny on a bat­tle­ship, or a stat­ue being pulled to the ground. Vic­to­ry will be mea­sured in par­ents tak­ing their kids to school; immi­grants com­ing to our shores; fans tak­ing in a ball­game; a vet­er­an start­ing a busi­ness; a bustling city street. The qui­et deter­mi­na­tion; that strength of char­ac­ter and bond of fel­low­ship; that refu­ta­tion of fear – that is both our sword and our shield. And long after the cur­rent mes­sen­gers of hate have fad­ed from the world’s mem­o­ry, along­side the bru­tal despots, deranged mad­men, and ruth­less dem­a­gogues who lit­ter his­to­ry – the flag of the Unit­ed States will still wave from small-town ceme­ter­ies, to nation­al mon­u­ments, to dis­tant out­posts abroad.  And that flag will still stand for free­dom.

Thank you. God Bless you. And may God bless the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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