In a wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University, in Washington D.C., today, President Obama launched a spirited defense of his administration's efforts to pursue terrorists overseas, even while he outlined a more limited path forward in the fight against terror.
"We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war -- a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense," Obama said. "And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion."
In the first major foreign policy address of his second term, Obama addressed head-on some of his administration's most passionate critics from both the opposite end of the political spectrum and his own party.
"These are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong," Obama said when a protester repeatedly interrupted his hourlong remarks.
Obama said that on Thursday he signed a Presidential Policy Guidance that outlined not only his administration's guidelines for the use of force against terrorists but for more oversight and accountability for those actions.
He called on Congress to close Guantanamo Bay, and he encouraged the use of diplomatic power to address the ideology that produces terrorists domestic and abroad.
Yet in the speech, Obama insisted that his administration's strategies were proactive and effective, despite questions about the legality of some of the actions.
He spoke pointedly about intelligence gathered in Osama bin Laden's compound that proved that al Qaeda operatives knew that drone strikes were working.
"In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden's compound, we found that he wrote, 'We could lose the reserves to the enemy's air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.' Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well," Obama said. "Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bombmakers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan."
"Simply put, these strikes have saved lives," Obama said.
He also acknowledged that drone strikes have resulted in civilian deaths and, like in any conflict, may have had a negative impact on public perceptions of the U.S. abroad. But Obama said that the strikes, and the civilian casualties that they have resulted in, are preferable to the alternative.
"To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties," Obama 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."
Ahead of Obama's speech, Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday disclosed publicly for the first time that four American citizens had been killed in drone attacks.
The administration says that only one of these people, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al Qaeda official, was targeted. One of the other three was killed with al-Awlaki; another was al-Awlaki's son, killed in another strike.
Obama said that he does not believe the U.S. government can target and kill American citizens without due process, but that American citizenship cannot be used as a "shield."