President Barack Obama tried to use a wide-ranging speech Thursday to reset the narrative on a counterterrorism record that has been a political thorn in the White House’s side in recent months. But the immediate reaction from adversaries in Congress about new policies relating to the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison and drone strikes suggested he had changed few minds.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters afterward that “there are parts of this speech that I could’ve given.” But Obama’s overall view of the war is wrong, Graham said, adding that the president’s policies would make the country less safe. “The enemy is morphing. It is spreading,” he said. “There are more theaters of conflict today than there have ever been. Our allies are more afraid than I’ve ever seen; our enemies more emboldened.”
Obama laid out a new road map to combat the evolving terrorism threat, one that he’ll need Congress’ help to build with an array of legislation that he pledged to work with lawmakers on: the repeal of restrictions on transferring detainees from the Guantánamo Bay prison, new oversight measures for drone strikes, a revision of the 2001 authorization for the military to pursue al-Qaida, a media shield law and funding for diplomatic security.
“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth,” Obama said. “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.”
But while members of both parties offered encouraging words about aspects of his speech, the same rhetorical dynamics and policy differences popped up almost immediately.
For instance, Obama said he would lift the administration’s internal moratorium on sending detainees back to Yemen. The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence panel, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, dismissed the speech as rewarding detainees at Guantánamo who are carrying out hunger strikes.
“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss said in a written statement. “Today’s speech sends the message to Guantanamo detainees that if they harass the dedicated military personnel there enough, we will give in and send them home, even to Yemen.”
And Obama was himself heckled by a shouting protester who interrupted him repeatedly in an echo of criticisms from the left about his extensive use of drones and his failure to fulfill his campaign promise to close Guantánamo.
“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” Obama said after a third interruption. “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.”
Moving Past Leaks
The speech might have, however, provided a momentary distraction from a series of controversies facing his administration.
But he directly addressed the uproar over Justice Department tracking of journalists’ phone calls. Obama said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had agreed to review guidelines for investigations that involve reporters and would convene meetings with media groups to hear their concerns, with a report due July 12.
“Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” Obama said. “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 overreach.”
The president also showed new openness to an update of the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (PL 107-40), which military officials, as recently as last week, said was adequate to current needs.
Obama pointed out that the law is now 12 years old, the Afghanistan war is winding down and core al-Qaida is weakened, while splinter groups such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula are newly prominent.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, at least, welcomed Obama’s desire to work with Congress on a revision of the 2001 law.
“The original authorization is increasingly unrelated to current terrorist threats, so in order to protect the American people from these evolving threats, the administration must remain on firm legal footing provided by Congress,” Corker said in a written statement.
But appearing at the same news conference with Graham, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said Obama’s stated desire to repeal the 2001 authorization shouldn’t even be considered.
Obama again asked Congress to lift restrictions it imposed on the administration’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo.
“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,” he said.
House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said he was willing to work with the president on closing the facility, but the president needed to provide Congress with more details of his plans.
“I need to know what the President intends to do with those terrorist detainees who are too dangerous to release but cannot be tried; how he will ensure terrorists transferred overseas do not return to the fight; and what he will do with terrorists we will capture in the future, as well as those dangerous terrorists still held in Afghanistan?” McKeon said in a written statement.
Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on McKeon’s panel, offered unqualified praise for the president’s renewed effort to close Guantánamo, saying that groups use the prison when “rallying extremists to its cause.”
Drone Strike Options
Referring to congressional proposals for oversight of drone strikes, he said that creating a special court could bring that oversight but raise constitutional questions, while forming an independent oversight board within the executive branch could add layers of bureaucracy to decision-making.
“Despite these challenges,” Obama said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight.”
On Thursday, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Maine independent Angus King and Florida Republican Marco Rubio — introduced legislation that would require an independent analysis if the government is considering whether it can legally use lethal force against a U.S. citizen, with notifications provided to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the inspector general for the intelligence community and congressional Intelligence panels.