WASHINGTON — Reining back the aggressive counter-terrorism strategy he has embraced for five years, President Obama declared clear, public restrictions for the first time on using unmanned aircraft to kill terrorists, a shift likely to significantly reduce U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Obama also lifted a ban on sending scores of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back to their home countries and renewed his call to move the remaining detainees onto U.S. soil for imprisonment and possible trial in civilian or military courts.
The announcements came in a major speech Thursday in which Obama defended his largely covert efforts against Al Qaeda and other extremist groups as legal and morally justified. At the same time, he sought to narrow and redefine the scope of the worldwide anti-terrorism campaign he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," Obama said. "But this war, like all wars, must end.
"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."
The speech set a new road map for U.S. policy and a clear pivot for Obama, who had dramatically expanded targeted killings abroad. His administration had refused for years to even acknowledge the classified drone operations conducted by the CIA and the military. But Congress and international allies have increasingly challenged the drone policy and the secret legal framework behind it.
Saying the effort is now at a "crossroads," Obama indicated that the drone campaign that has killed several thousand suspected terrorists and militants, and an undetermined number of civilians, will now decline sharply. The need for strikes has receded, he said, because the threat from a weakened Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has diminished, and U.S. troops will withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan over the next 19 months.
Once U.S. troops leave, "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," he said.
Obama also said he would consider proposals for an independent panel, or a special court, to review evidence before a drone strike is authorized.
The speech came the day after Obama signed classified policy guidance that sets new standards for deciding whom to kill, where, and under what circumstances. For the first time, aides said, the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons," not those who posed a "significant threat," the previous standard.
Officials said that under the new policy, the military, rather than the CIA, will take the lead on most strikes. That's expected to be particularly true in Yemen and Somalia.
The new guideline is likely to ultimately rule out so-called signature strikes against massed groups of men believed to be fighters but whose identities are unknown. Critics said those attacks caused numerous civilian casualties and were a prime source of friction with Pakistan, where the drone attacks are deeply unpopular.
Obama acknowledged that U.S. strikes have created a backlash in many parts of the world, noting that even sending U.S. Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden at his hide-out in Pakistan had caused such an outcry there that "we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership."
Under the new standards, U.S. authorities also must ascertain with "near certainty" that civilians will not be injured or killed in a drone strike. Strikes against foreign militants will now be conducted under the same standard as those against U.S. citizens who have joined forces with Al Qaeda, according to a senior administration official.
Throughout the speech, Obama offered a carefully nuanced view of U.S. policy. He defended his decisions, particularly against critics on the left, even as he said it was time to move from a "perpetual wartime footing" to a less ambitious campaign.
"To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places, like Sana and Kabul and Mogadishu, where terrorists seek a foothold," he said. "Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes."
Terrorists still threaten America, he added, citing recent attacks "from Benghazi to Boston."
But he warned against overreaction, saying that the threat has shifted from networks plotting mass murder to smaller groups and individuals, much like the attacks the U.S. suffered before Sept. 11, 2001, and drones are not "a cure-all for terrorism."
"As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion," he said. "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.
"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."
White House officials had been preparing the speech since Obama pledged in his second inaugural address in February to provide greater transparency in counter-terrorism policies.
For the first time, Obama said he wanted to engage with lawmakers about rewriting the law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that provides a legal basis for drone strikes against Al Qaeda. This month, senior Pentagon officials told Congress they saw no need to change the law.
Leading Republicans accused the president of underplaying the danger of terrorist groups.
"The troubling reality is that the president continues to underestimate the serious threat that Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired terrorists present to Americans," said Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Now is not the time to abandon robust efforts to keep Americans safe."
Civil liberties advocates argued that Obama did not go far enough.
"The president still claims broad authority to carry out targeted killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point."
As expected, Obama disclosed moves to reduce the inmate rolls at Guantanamo Bay, where about 100 of the 166 prisoners have joined a hunger strike.
He lifted a self-imposed ban on sending prisoners cleared for release back to Yemen, although he said each case would be reviewed again.
He said he would appoint a new senior envoy at the State Department and the Pentagon to arrange additional transfers. He also said he had asked the Defense Department to designate a site on U.S. soil to hold military commissions for terrorism suspects.
And he made an impassioned plea to resistant lawmakers, warning that history will cast "a harsh judgment" if they don't help him close the prison.
"We are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike," he said. "Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"