Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama gave a wide-ranging speech on U.S. counterterrorism policies. The result has been significant confusion regarding targeted killings, because what was reported in the press and what the president actually said were different, particularly on the matters of transferring drone strikes from the CIA to the military and ending signature strikes. Two hours before Obama’s speech, three anonymous administration officials gave a background briefing to reporters, which provided some clarity on several counterterrorism matters. Since the White House did not make a transcript of this briefing available, in the interest of transparency, I have re-printed it below in its entirety. Where “(inaudible)” appears, the transcription service did not include the name of the official mentioned.
STAFF: We’re here to talk to you today about the speech the president’s about to give at 2 o’clock at National Defense University on counterterrorism. This call is on background, attributable to senior administration officials. So that you know who’s talking to you, we have (inaudible) again, this is on background to senior administration officials. This call is embargoed until 2 p.m., when the president speaks. We actually don’t have a lot of time, so we’ll go ahead and get started. We’ll have (inaudible) run through what’s in the speech, and then we’ll take your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just run through some of the elements of the speech, and then we’ll take your questions.
The purpose of this speech is to take a step back and take a broad look at our counterterrorism efforts. And I think you will see the president cover a significant amount of ground in this speech. He’ll review what has taken place since 9/11 in the war against Al Qaida and its associated forces and he will discuss how the threat has changed substantially over the course of the last decade.
We now face a situation in which the core of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. They have been greatly damaged by our relentless pursuit of Al Qaida’s senior leadership and the threat of 9/11-style attacks, mass casualty attacks in the United States, has been greatly reduced.
At the same time, however, we have seen the threat change significantly, and new threats have emerged. And for instance, we face a threat from Al Qaida affiliates, notably AQAP, who continue to plot against the homeland. We face a threat from the unrest in the Arab world, which has allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries that are undergoing significant change. These groups are often more locally focused, in terms of the types of attacks that they carry out, and we are vigilant, of course, for any ambitions that they may demonstrate towards transnational plotting. But a lot of these groups do not focus on attacks beyond their borders.
We also face a threat from homegrown violent extremism, as we recently saw in Boston. So you face a situation where threats like those from AQAP, like those of the attacks on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, and like those of the attacks in Boston represent the future of the types of threats we’re facing from terrorism, rather than the type of threat we faced on 9/11.
The president will discuss a broad strategy for how we deal with that threat. I’ll just talk through several of the elements that he’ll discuss. One is, he will discuss how we take direct action, including lethal action, against Al Qaida and its associated forces. We have a preference for working with partners and strengthening their capacity to take action against terrorist networks. And we see that in Pakistan, where the Pakistanis have taken action against extremists, in Yemen, where we’re strengthening security forces, in Somalia, for instance, where we’re working with other nations to combat Al-Shabaab.
However, it is the case that the United States does take direct lethal action against Al Qaida and its associated forces, including beyond the active warzone of Afghanistan, and we do so with unmanned aerial vehicles, drones. And the president will be discussing the presidential policy guidance that he signed this week that codifies the high and rigorous standards that we’ve applied for the use of direct lethal action.
I’ll just mention a few of the types of standards that he will be discussing today. So, for instance, again, let me preface this by saying he’ll make clear both the policy and legal rationale for our actions and the fact that our actions are lawful under both domestic and international law, as well as, again, our preference for working with partners to combat terrorist networks.
At the same time, he’ll make clear that beyond the Afghan theater, we only target Al Qaida and its associated forces, and we place constraints on our actions. America does not take drone strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists. We have a preference to detain, interrogate and prosecute terrorists.
America acts with respect for state sovereignty, so we do not claim the right to take strikes wherever we choose. We do so respectful of state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We only take action 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 importantly, before any strike is taken, there must be a near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured in the strike, which is the highest standard that we can set for avoiding civilian casualties. Those are the types of standards that he’ll be addressing.
He’ll also discuss at length the various tradeoffs and questions that he wrestles with and that our government has wrestled with in using lethal force abroad as it relates to efforts to prevent civilian casualties, and I think you will hear him make a very strong case that the use of targeted action is preferable to large-scale military deployments, to other types of more indiscriminate air power, and, of course, to permitting terrorist attacks that could be prevented to take place.
As a part of his discussion, he will address the declassification that he authorized this week of the four instances in which U.S. citizens have been killed in U.S. lethal action — or, sorry, U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad. He will make clear that, in the instance in which a U.S. citizen was targeted, Anwar Awlaki, there was a very careful review both by the Department of Justice and across the administration about the decision to take that strike, while also making clear that Congress was fully briefed on that action before it took place.
He will also make clear in that context that the standards that we apply for taking lethal action abroad are uniform for all people, American citizens and other terrorist targets. He will discuss the importance of oversight, including how we’ve been committed to congressional oversight. He will also indicate that he is open to and has asked his administration to review the possibility of additional oversight of legal actions outside of warzones that goes beyond Congress. And he will discuss some of the tradeoffs associated with, for instance, a potential special court that could evaluate and authorize lethal action or an independent body within the executive branch that could do so. And he will indicate that he is open to working with Congress to review those types of options going forward.
At the same time, he’ll make clear that the use of force is not the totality of our strategy against terrorism, nor should it be. It must be seen as part of a broader counterterrorism strategy, because, frankly, the use of force alone cannot defeat the violent extremism that leads to terrorist attacks, and the perpetual use of force would alter our country in a fundamental way.
He will discuss strategies, again, for promoting democratic governance in the context of the transitions in the Middle East and North Africa. He will discuss, again, the importance of the United States being engaged around the world to resolve conflict and to help promote development. And in that context, he will discuss the tradeoffs of needing to be present in dangerous parts of the world, but also needing to secure our diplomats, and he’ll reiterate his call for Congress to fully fund our efforts to bolster security at our diplomatic posts abroad, even as we wrestle with the tradeoffs of needing to be present in dangerous places and facing risks in those places.
He will also discuss the threats of homegrown extremism, making clear that we have faced the threat of violent extremism from within our borders throughout our history and need to take action, though, given the fact that in today’s world, particularly given the Internet, individuals can be radicalized and commit themselves to a violent agenda and learn how to kill without leaving their homes. And he’ll discuss the efforts we have underway to work with law enforcement and to work with the Muslim American community, again, to identify signs of radicalization, when individuals are drifting toward violence, and to prevent these types of acts of homegrown terrorism here in the United States.
He will also discuss some of the other tradeoffs associated with our efforts to both combat terrorism and protect our open society. One of those issues is the ongoing discussion of leak investigations. And the president will indicate that he believes that, again, we must protect the right of a free press, even as we must prosecute those who violate the law and their commitment to protect classified information.
He’ll reiterate his personal concern about any potential chilling effect on investigative reporting that results from these types of leak investigations. And to prevent that effect, he’ll reiterate his call on Congress to pass a media shield law, and he’ll also indicate additional steps that he is taking, along with the attorney general, to make sure that we are reviewing the guidelines under which there are investigations of potential leaks.
He will also discuss his effort to engage Congress going forward about the authorization to use military force that has been in force for nearly 12 years, and he will discuss the need to refine that authorization going forward, consistent with his commitment, again, to make sure that we have a sustainable approach to fighting terrorism.
With the Afghan war ending, with Al Qaida core being significantly degraded, it is the president’s belief that we need to discipline our thinking as it relates to terrorism, and we need to ensure that this war that we’re engaged in, like all American wars, must come to an end.
And that relates to the subject of detention, which he’ll discuss. He will reiterate his call for the closure of Gitmo. I think you’ll hear him make the case for why Gitmo should be closed at length, given its cost to our reputation, its cost in terms of budgetary expenditure, as well as the constraints it places on our ability to work with other countries and to bring certain terrorists to justice.
He will announce a number of specific steps that he can take related to the closure of Gitmo. He’ll call on Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. He will indicate that he’s asking the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. He’ll indicate that he is appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department, as well as a new senior official at the Defense Department who will be responsible for achieving the transfers of detainees to other countries.
He will announce that he is lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so that we can review those on a case-by-case basis, and to the greatest extent possible, indicate that we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. And he will indicate, again, his commitment to bringing terrorists to justice in our courts, in the military justice system, as well as his commitment to insist that judicial review is available for every detainee at Gitmo.
Obviously, he covers a lot of ground in this speech. The purpose generally is to put in context for the American people where we are in the fight against terrorism, to address the fact that the threat has changed and to try to take all of these elements of our counterterrorism strategy and put them on a more sustainable footing, a footing that, again, envisions the day when we no longer need to be on the type of war footing that we have been in for the last nearly 12 years.
I will say that the president believes that this type of transparency is essential in our democracy. He indicated that he wanted to give a speech like this in the State of the Union, and we have been working on this speech since then, and the presidential policy guidance that he finalized today we’ve actually been working on for many, many months, back into last year, and they reflect, again, the rigorous approach we’ve applied to this over the course of the last four years.
With that, we’ll be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Is the president’s decision to make these changes at Guantanamo Bay spurred by the ongoing hunger strike? And if not because of the hunger strike, why take action now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, the president has always been committed to closing Gitmo. And we pursued a number of transfers of detainees in pursuit of that goal in the first term. What happened then is Congress placed extraordinary restrictions on our ability to transfer individuals either to the United States or to other countries and essentially slowed down this process.
Now, given that this is the beginning or near the beginning of his second term, and given the importance he places on closing Gitmo, he feels the need to indicate every action that he can take as president to accomplish this goal of closing Gitmo and to bring Congress into that effort, because ultimately we do need congressional support.
With respect to the hunger strike, I think it’s certainly true that you’ll hear him reference that as an indication of the type of situation we have, where you have 166 detainees many of whom have been cleared for transfer to other countries who are resorting to that tactic, given the inability to move forward with a number of the mechanisms that we have for resolving their cases and closing Gitmo.
The fundamental point is that this is part of his commitment to closing Gitmo because it’s in our national security interest and it’s consistent with our commitment to the rule of law. The timing is driven both again by the president indicating his agenda on this issue in his second term, but part of the context of that is people taking drastic steps of hunger strikes in Gitmo.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The other thing I would say is what you’ll the president will indicate his intention to lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen that had previously been in place. And I think what that also reflects is a recognition that in President Hadi the United States has a willing and increasingly able partner who is presiding over a political transition in Yemen. And the president’s decision to lift the moratorium on transfers to Yemen and address those transfers on a case-by-case basis, consistent with our national security, also reflects those changed circumstances.
QUESTION: Will the president address what he would like to be done with Gitmo detainees who can’t be tried for various reasons and who are deemed too dangerous to be released? Does he have any power on his own to address this system? Or is it completely in the hands of Congress?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He will address that topic. First of all, as a general matter, he will make clear that we have been acting entirely consistent with the law of war in how we end conflicts abroad.
For instance, in Iraq, we transferred thousands of detainees to the Iraqi government as a part of ending the war. In Afghanistan, we’re in the process of transitioning detention facilities to the Afghan government. The point being, that beyond the population in Gitmo, we have not engaged in preventive detention without subjecting all of our actions to the laws of war.
Even at Gitmo, that is the legal authority under which individuals are being held. But he will acknowledge that this is the most difficult piece of the puzzle in terms of resolving all of the cases at Gitmo, in part because, in some instances you have individuals who’ve had the evidence against them compromised or have evidence against them that is not admissible in a court.
But at the same time, he will make clear that if we commit ourselves to a process of closing Gitmo, that includes not just transfers to other countries, but prosecutions here in military and criminal justice systems, that he believes we can resolve that issue and we can do so consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
I think what the president will be indicating is, if we make a concerted effort to close Gitmo, to resolve all these cases, and to use all available tools within our justice system, he believes we can resolve that issue and we can act with the Gitmo population as we have across the board, completely in line with the laws of war and our own commitment to the rule of law. We’ll take the next question.
QUESTION: The new order the president signed in the past week on drones, how many of these criteria are new? In other words, did not apply to previous drone strikes before this order was signed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This has been an evolving process. And basically, I think you’ve heard and John mentioned in his speech and other places that we’ve been continually refining and strengthening the process by which we deal with this. And when you look at the public fact sheet that will be released on these procedures, what you’ll see is a lot of interagency process, some of which is –basically all of which over time evolves– and then you’ll also see that there are criteria listed, and some of them will be slightly different than the criteria, for example, that John Brennan noted in his Wilson Center speech.
And it’s sort of an evolving process. One of the differences is, we were looking at significant threats in the Wilson Center speech, and now we’re looking at continuing and imminent threats. That is, in a sense, one of the standards that has evolved.
And in addition, you’ll see a lot of stress on making every reasonable effort to address whatever the threat is through our markets, through the host nation, through other mechanisms. But otherwise, you’ll see also a lot of continuity in the way in which we approach these things that are basically being codified in the guidance that’s been issued.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing I’d add to that is, as (inaudible) indicates, we have sought to refine these practices over time. The president believed that, given the grave issues at stake here, it was necessary to codify these guidelines so they were clear to all agencies of our government and to the American people and the world, as well.
And in some instances, as (inaudible) indicated, that involves strengthened standards, like only taking action against continued and imminent threats to the United States, for instance. And you’ll also see the president indicating here that he insists that near certainty that civilians won’t be killed or injured is a part of the standards under which the United States takes action.
In some respects, this does indicate the codification of the highest standards that we have pursued in the course of the last several years, and that is meant as a baseline to guide us going forward.
I’ll also note that, without getting into every operation here, that we do indicate in the PPG that the United States military is the appropriate agency to use force outside of active warzones, given their traditional role and given the transparency that can be associated with actions by the United States military.
Again, that’s not to say that the United States does not pursue a range of counterterrorism operations around the world, but there is an expressed preference indicated for the United States military to have the lead for the use of forces around the world. With that, we’ll take the next question.
QUESTION: When Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted in Yemen and the 16-year-old son who was killed was also an American citizen, I’m just wondering, how do you see this? Do you see it as collateral damage or guilt by association? Where does he fall, in terms of being just the son of Anwar al-Awlaki?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, as was made clear in the letter yesterday, Anwar al-Awlaki was the one U.S. citizen who was targeted for direct lethal action by the United States. And the purpose of that decision was rooted in the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki posed a continuing and imminent threat to the United States as the chief of external operations for AQAP, as somebody who had played a role in plots like the Christmas Day attack, like the effort to blow up cargo planes headed for the United States, and in ongoing plotting against the United States.
In those other instances, I don’t want to get into the details of each of those instances. What I will say generally is that there are times when there are individuals who are present at Al Qaida and associated forces’ facilities, and in that regard, they are subject to the lethal action that we take.
There are other instances when there are tragic cases of civilian casualties and people that the United States do not in any way intend to target, because, again, as in any war, there are tragic consequences that come with the decisions to use force, including civilian casualties.
Again, what the president will discuss in the speech is the tradeoffs involved and the fact that, frankly, we believe that there would be far greater civilian casualties if the United States were to use its military abroad in the way in which we did in Iraq or even Afghanistan to go after terrorists. There would be greater civilian casualties were we to use more indiscriminate air power that is not as able to be precise, like some of our drone strikes are.
At the same time, there are greater civilian casualties that would result from a failure to prevent terrorist attacks not just in the United States, but in places like Yemen, where you’ve seen far more Yemenis killed by AQAP than you have seen Americans.
That’s the type of discussion you’ll see from the president today, one that acknowledges that we do take targeted action against individuals who pose a continuing imminent threat. At the same time, we acknowledge and wrestle with the need to avoid any civilian casualties, and we view any civilian casualty as a tragic consequence of this ongoing war.
QUESTION: I was hoping that you could talk in more detail about either in the speech or, if he’s not getting into it in the speech, how what he’s doing will work in terms of the shifting of more of the drone responsibilities from the CIA to the military. What countries? What schedule? Will it go to JSOC or will it be more transparent? And also, will signature strikes explicitly be prohibited now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With respect to which agency is responsible, I’ll repeat a bit of what I said to (inaudible) in the sense that, we’re not going to be able to discuss every counterterrorism operation that we undertake around the world. I think what we do express in the PPG, though, is the preference that the United States military have the lead for the use of force, not just in warzones like Afghanistan, but beyond Afghanistan, where we are fighting against Al Qaida and its associated forces. There’s an indication of a preference for the Department of Defense to engage in the use of force outside of warzones. What I’d say on the signature strike question that you asked, again, I don’t want to get into the details of any, of a specific strike. What I’d say is, first of all, we indicate a preference to work with partners, first and foremost, to deal with the threat of terrorism. Any action that we do take in terms of direct lethal action is subject to that standard of a continuing and imminent threat to the United States.
The context for this is generally our war against Al Qaida and associated forces, but, of course, in the Afghan war theater, there is a slightly different context, in the sense that we take action against high-value Al Qaida targets, but we also take action against forces that are massing to support attacks on our troops and on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
By the end of 2014, as we wind down the war in Afghanistan, we will not have the same need for force protection and those types of strikes that are designed to protect our forces in Afghanistan. Furthermore, we believe that the core of Al Qaida has been greatly diminished, therefore, that will reduce the need for unmanned strikes against the core of Al Qaida, as well.
I think you can take from that the context for which we view these strikes, particularly in the Afghan war theater, where there have been these dual needs in the past for both action against Al Qaida core and action to protect our forces in Afghanistan.
Given the two principal changing circumstances in our effort against terrorism — the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and the demise of Al Qaida core — the need for the types of strikes that we’ve taken generally over the core of the last several years will be reduced over time.
QUESTION: Can you tell me if the president believes the U.S. is still in a war on terror? Or is that a phrase that he doesn’t embrace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The president has indicated and will indicate again today that he rejects the notion of a global war on terrorism, which is an amorphous definition that applies to a tactic. Rather than fighting a global war on terrorism, which is open-ended and expansive in nature and is not precise, in terms of who we are fighting, the president I think will make clear that what we are engaged in is a focused effort against a very specific network of violent extremists that threaten the United States and pose a direct and credible threat to the United States.
In other words, we are defining this more narrowly than a global war on terrorism. This is an effort to dismantle a specific group of networks that pose a threat to the United States.
I think you’ll see the president also indicate that even that effort we have to acknowledge will come to an end at some point, that the purpose of this effort is not to sustain a war footing in perpetuity, but it’s rather to defeat Al Qaida and their associated forces and reduce the threat to the United States.
I think the president will also indicate that ultimately our resilience is our strongest weapon in this effort. You cannot eliminate risk. You cannot eliminate terrorism. And I think the president will discuss in the speech the fact that the types of threats that we face today are of a similar scale to the threat that we face from terrorism in the past, when we had attacks on our embassies and we had attacks on planes and transit systems.
Again, the notion that you can eliminate terrorism altogether is not something that is realistic. What is necessary is to dismantle groups like Al Qaida and their associated forces who have posed such an elevated threat to the United States, to reduce the threat to our diplomats serving overseas, but ultimately to have a sustainable and resilient approach that focuses our efforts on the groups that are most dangerous to us, but does not get drawn into wars with groups that do not pose a credible threat to the United States.
QUESTION: How specific will the president be? And will you actually present to Congress language or, if not language, ideas about this concept of a separate evidentiary review for targeted drone strikes? You mentioned that the president’s open to that. I’m just curious, how open? And is he so open he’s going to present some language to Congress?
And (inaudible) said that the policy has been evolving. Clearly, the number of drone strikes are down in Pakistan, they’re down in Yemen. They haven’t occurred in Somalia. To what degree does that reduction in numbers reflect the ongoing evolution of this policy and if something’s been essentially not done that would have been done, say, a year-and-a-half or two years ago?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On your second question, I’d say it’s both. It’s both the fact that we have reduced the threat of terrorism and removed a lot of the senior leadership of Al Qaida and some other affiliates and also our effort to ensure that there are high standards and constraints on our use of lethal force.
On your first question, there are two areas I think where the president will indicate a desire to engage Congress. One is this question of independent review. I think we’re not proposing language at this point. What we’re indicating is their ideas, for instance, to have a special court, like a FISA-type court, to review lethal action or to have an independent body within the executive branch. We’re open to those ideas.
But Congress should be a part of the discussion and the American people should be a part of the discussion. We have done our part with this presidential policy guidance to constrain ourselves and to set standards on the use of direct action, but at the same time, we need to bring Congress into that discussion, and that’s something we’ll be doing going forward.
Similarly, the AUMF is an area where the president will indicate a desire to work with Congress, but he’ll make clear that, as a part of that effort, he’s not seeking to broaden presidential authorities. He’s seeking to refine this so that we have a more disciplined and sustainable approach to fighting terrorism.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On your question about independent review, as (inaudible) said, what I think what you’ll hear from the president is there is an openness, and he certainly understands the concerns that have been raised, and this whole PPG effort is an effort to recognize the need to have these types of checks. And you’ll hear him discuss those different ideas and also the tradeoffs and the difficulties that are associated with some of them.
QUESTION: Question about Guantanamo. The president could have moved independent of Congress, despite their restrictions before. Is he now prepared to assert that there is, under the current guidelines, no chance that these particular detainees that go back to Yemen will rejoin jihad? Is that something you feel comfortable with, despite the improvements that you’ve cited in the governance there?
And separately, on the subject of media investigations, are you completely comfortable with the assertion yesterday from the prosecutor that every attempt was made to narrow the scope and limit these inquiries, to the extent that the president is going to say today that he believes in press freedoms and wants a shield law, when the broad impression — and feel free to correct it — is that this has been the most aggressive investigation into leaks involving media freedoms of any administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to comment on any specific case as it relates to leak investigations. You know we can’t do that.
What I’ll say generally is, first of all, the president has a responsibility as commander-in-chief to prevent the release of sensitive information. Frankly, a lot of the public discussion has been focused on certain instances where these are investigations that were called for by Congress, as well.
But I think what the president will indicate today in his speech is that the target of these investigations should be those individuals who break the law and could violate their commitment to protect classified information, should not be reporters, and reporters have a right to be tough, aggressive, investigative journalists, and that’s a fundamental part of our democracy. That’s, I think, the way in which you’ll hear him frame it.
On Gitmo, (inaudible) wanted to discuss this. I’d just reinforce that, again, we have a national security interest in closing the facility, first of all, and we have a changed circumstance in Yemen, with respect to the moratorium, but…
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the Gitmo piece, the moratorium was something that the president imposed, and that was an action he took before the congressional restrictions. What he will say is he now wants to be able to consider those transfers on a case-by-case basis, consistent with national security.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But I’d just add one more thing, because it’s important. The president is announcing today all the steps that he can take to move this forward. There is a responsibility on Congress here. And he will call on Congress to lift these restrictions.
What you’re hearing from him today on Gitmo is, here’s what I can do as commander-in-chief and president of the United States to close this facility that is harmful to our national interests and that costs us nearly $1 million to detain an individual for one year. We need to get this done. But Congress has a responsibility, as well, and that’s what we’re going to be looking for going forward.