WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday that the United States has reached a "crossroads" in the fight against terrorism and that it is time to redefine and recalibrate a war that will eventually end.
Far from repudiating the controversial use of drones against terrorist targets, Obama defended the tactic as effective, legal and life-saving. But he acknowledged that threat levels have fallen to levels not seen since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, requiring new criteria for the use of lethal force.
Obama used the first major counterterrorism address of his second term to outline newly narrowed guidelines to deploy drones only against targets that pose a "continuing, imminent threat" to the United States and only in cases where avoiding civilian casualties is a "near certainty."
"As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion," Obama said. "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance."
In a lengthy, wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama used the depiction of a diminished threat environment to make the case for sweeping changes to the counterterrorism landscape, including closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and finding a U.S. site where military commission trials can be held for eligible detainees.
Among steps to help thin the detention center's population of 166 people, many of them now on a hunger strike, he called for an end to congressional restrictions on transfers for those cleared to leave and said he was lifting his own moratorium on the repatriation of several dozen Yemeni prisoners.
But even while declaring that "this war, like all wars, must end," Obama made clear that other pieces of the nation's counterterrorism aparatus will remain in place, including targeted killings with drones. He made no mention of ending the CIA's involvement in the drone campaign.
Obama's remarks followed a pledge in his State of the Union speech in January to make his counterterrorism policies, particularly about drones, more transparent and accountable to Congress and the American public.
Congressional responses ran the gamut. "The president's speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the speech went further in describing the president's vision of countering a diminished terrorist threat than it did in delineating how it will go about doing so.
"It seemed like the administration is using a two-tiered approach," Schiff said. "A public speech to set up a broad idea that we're at a crossroads. And at the same time a more private track which changes the criteria and adds restrictions to the drone program."
As a result, Schiff said, Obama "raised a number of questions as well as answering some."
Obama sought to both describe a reduced threat level and avoid dismissing the risk. "Now make no mistake," he said, "our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth." But rather than "the threat that came to our shores on 9/11," he said al-Qaida was now "on a path to defeat."
He outlined a three-fold danger from weakened al-Qaida affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad and homegrown extremists.
"This is the future of terrorism," Obama said. "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."
Obama said he would not sign any proposed expansion of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gives the president the power to use military force against al-Qaida. Some lawmakers have argued that the authorization should be revised because it is now used to justify targeted killings against al-Qaida "associates" in Yemen and Somalia, far removed from the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama said he would work to refine and ultimately repeal the mandate.
"America is at a crossroads," he said. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."
In his speech, Obama put the conflict in the "Afghan war theater" in a separate category from the fight against al-Qaida "associates" elsewhere. He said the United States would "continue to take strikes against high value al-Qaida targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces" until they are withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.