WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from Congress and international allies, President Obama announced a change in what has been a central piece of his counter-terrorism strategy, saying he will place new restrictions on the targeting of terrorists with missiles fired from drones.
In a speech that took stock of America’s long battle with Al Qaeda, the president said he would continue ordering lethal drone strikes to stop potential terrorist attacks because the relative precision of drone warfare is preferable to major troop deployments or traditional bombing.
But a newly codified rule book, administration officials said, would hold U.S. authorities to a tougher standard when deciding whom to kill, where, and under what circumstances.
Under the new policy, strikes will be authorized only against militants who pose “a continuing, imminent threat,” aides said, instead of “a significant threat,” which had been the previous standard.
Before any strike is undertaken, “there must be a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” said a senior administration official who spoke under ground rules that did not allow him to be named.
Strikes against foreign militants will be conducted under the same standard as those against U.S. citizens who have joined forces with Al Qaeda, the official said.
“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama said in his address at the National Defense University.
The result, aides said, will be a curtailing of the frequent, secret drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that have marked much of Obama’s presidency. At the same time, Obama reserved the right to order covert lethal action anywhere the administration finds a threat from Al Qaeda.
Obama didn’t spell out exactly why he was throttling back on drones, a program he inherited from President George W. Bush and then dramatically expanded.
His administration has faced skepticism from Congress, which has held a series of hearings on targeted killings. None of America’s major allies have fully embraced the U.S. legal theory of why the strikes are justified.
The policy reasons driving the change, aides said, are that the core group of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan is all but defeated and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. That means there is less reason to hit massed groups in Pakistan under a tactic known as “signature strikes,” in which the CIA fired missiles at groups of suspected militants whose identities were unknown.
Obama spoke to that issue obliquely, saying, “In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high-value Al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core Al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
In Yemen, where the CIA and the military have launched numerous drone strikes, a new pro-American government is making progress against the Al Qaeda affiliate there, U.S. officials said, and that is making U.S. drone strikes less crucial.