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Obama retools terror war, saying America is 'at a crossroads'

In a major address on defense policy, President Obama said the war on terror is shifting and laid out new rules for drone strikes. He also proposed new plans for some Guantánamo Bay detainees.

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President Obama speaks about his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington Thursday.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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America is “at a crossroads” in its fight against terrorism, President Obama declared Thursday, as he announced new guidelines narrowing the use of drones to target terror suspects, and renewed his effort to close the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Beyond Afghanistan, where the US combat mission is winding down, “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,” Mr. Obama said in a major address at the National Defense University in Washington.

“Now make no mistake: Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” the president continued. “From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”

Obama announced that on Wednesday, he signed a Presidential Policy Guidance that constrains the use of unmanned drone aircraft in countries that are not theaters of war. Beyond the Afghan theater, he said, the US only targets Al Qaeda and its associated forces. But even there, the use of drones is curtailed: The US must seek to capture a suspect when it has that ability.

In addition, “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty,” Obama said. “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.”

There must also be “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured.

Critics of US policy say the new guidance is still too vague.

“The policy standard he outlined for the targeting of individuals, requiring imminence and feasibility of capture, while narrower than prior asserted standards, also raised questions about how those standards would be interpreted,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement. “Prior Justice Department interpretations, for example, that imminence does not require clear evidence of a specific act in the immediate future, do not engender confidence.”

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