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President Obama Speaks at National Defense University - Second Half

Aired May 23, 2013 - 14:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 with 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, helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and 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 him out.

Of course, the targeting of any American 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've 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.

Now, going forward, I've 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. But 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 we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism 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 our values demand that we make the effort.

This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremism. 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 actively 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.

And success on all these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources. I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That's true for Democrats and Republicans. I've seen the polling. Even though it amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it's 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than 1 percent, still widely unpopular.

But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and it's fundamental to 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. That has to be part of our strategy.

Moreover, America cannot carry out this work if we don't have diplomats serving in some very 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've called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security and 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 tradeoffs between security and active diplomacy, I firmly believe that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers that we face in the long run. And that's why we should be grateful to those diplomats who are willing to serve there.

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. But as we guard against dangers from abroad, 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, in some cases, its 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. And the best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists 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. In fact, 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 that we're at war with Islam.

Now, 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, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse. That means that, even after Boston, we do not deport someone or throw somebody 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 counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.

Now, 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. That's who we are. And I'm 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's why I've have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach. And I've raised these issues with the attorney general, who shares my concern. So he's agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and he'll 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.

Now, 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 terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core Al Qaida 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 Qaida" will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, 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. I'm going to repeat one more time. 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 wherever we can.

The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The original premise for opening Gitmo -- that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention -- was found unconstitutional five years ago. 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. 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 Gitmo open at a time when we're cutting investments in education and research here at home and when the Pentagon is struggling with sequester and budget cuts.

Now, as president, I have tried to close Gitmo. 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 here in the United States.

These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from Gitmo with Congress's support. When I ran for president the first time, John McCain supported closing Gitmo. This was a bipartisan issue.

No person has ever escaped one of our Supermax or military prisons here in the United States, ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees. They're in our prisons.

And given my administration's relentless pursuit of Al Qaida's leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.


OBAMA: Today...


OBAMA: So -- let me finish, ma'am. So today... (CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: So today, once again -- so today...


OBAMA: I'm about to address it, ma'am, but you've -- you've got to let me speak. I'm about to address it.


OBAMA: Let me address it.

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) close Guantanamo Bay...

OBAMA: Why don't you let me address it, ma'am? Why don't you sit down, and I will tell you exactly what I'm going to do?


OBAMA: Thank you, ma'am. Thank you. Thank you. Ma'am, thank you. You should let me finish my sentence.

OBAMA: Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo.


OBAMA: I have asked -- 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.


OBAMA: Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.


OBAMA: Now, ma'am, let me -- let me finish. Let me finish, ma'am. Now, this is part of free speech, is you being able to speak, but also you listening and me being able to speak, right?


OBAMA: Thank you.

Now, even after we take these steps, one issue will remain, which is how to deal with those Gitmo 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 Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

And 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 -- 10 years from now or 20 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 -- being held on a hunger strike.

I'm willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it's worth being passionate about. Is that who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave 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's 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 liberty."

PROTESTOR: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old (OFF- MIKE)

OBAMA: When we -- we went...

PROTESTOR: Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: He went on to -- we went on...

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop (OFF-MIKE) on the basis of (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: We're addressing that, ma'am.

PROTESTOR: (OFF-MIKE) that you have killed. Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe and keeping people (OFF-MIKE) rule of law (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: You know, I think that the -- and I'm going off-script, as you might expect here...


OBAMA: The -- the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.

(APPLAUSE) OBAMA: Obviously -- obviously -- obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously, she wasn't listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.

You know, when that judge sentenced Mr. Reid, the shoe-bomber, 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."

So, America, we've faced down dangers far greater than Al Qaida. By staying true to the values of our founding, and by using our constitutional compass, we have overcome slavery and Civil War and fascism and communism. In just these last few years as president, I've watched the American people bounce back from painful recession, mass shootings, 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 all 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're 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.

And 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, a citizen shouting her concerns at a president.

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 and 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 very much, everybody. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.