Obama Speech Expected To Touch On Drones, Guantanamo

On Thursday, President Obama is expected to explain how the fight against al-Qaida has changed, and how the U.S. will adapt its counter-terrorism policies to the evolving threat. The president will speak at the National Defense University.

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For months now, the Obama administration has promised to reveal more about America's secret drone program, and today could be the day. The president will speak this afternoon at the National Defense University, and he's planning to discuss America's fight against terrorism. He is expected to address everything from drones to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this preview.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The president conceded in his State of the Union Address that his administration could be more open about its battle against terrorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it, that we're doing things the right way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So, today, he's expected to announce two things that would make counter-terrorism efforts more accountable: that the U.S. drone program, operating in Africa and in Yemen, will be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon, and that he intends to redouble his efforts to move detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Jennifer Daskal is a former Obama Justice Department official. And she says the announcements are meant to send one message: That the fight against al-Qaida has changed.

JENNIFER DASKAL: I think, I hope that what you will hear in the speech is a discussion about making use of military force not the matter of first resort in the fight against terrorism, but a matter of last resort.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shedding some light on the drone program, she says, is part of that process. One first step: the administration formally acknowledged yesterday that it killed four U.S. citizens, including the targeting and killing of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

And Yemen is where there could be the biggest change in how the drone program operates. Control could shift from the CIA to the military's Special Operations command.

The military's special ops drone program is also secretive. But there's a mechanism in the military for accountability, including after-action reports, for example.

Jennifer Daskal, the former Justice Department official, says all this is incremental.

DASKAL: But it is not clear, at least in the short-term, that there's going to be much of a change.

TEMPLE-RASTON: CIA control over the drone program in Pakistan is not likely to change, though that may not matter much. Drone strikes there are down dramatically. According to the New America Foundation, which tracks drone attacks, there have been a dozen drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year. Three years ago, in 2010, there were 10 times that many.

The president is also expected to focus on the Guantanamo Bay Prison. The president promised to close it in 2009, but it's been harder to do than he expected. But there are options.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: Any practical alternative to Guantanamo probably would have to involve two major elements.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Waxman is a professor at Columbia Law School and a former Pentagon advisor on detainee issues.

WAXMAN: One is transferring or releasing a lot of detainees to home countries or to third countries. And the other major element would be bringing many of the Guantanamo detainees into the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So send them abroad or hold them here. Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress last week that the administration was reviewing the cases of one group of detainees that might be sent home: 56 Yemenis at Guantanamo cleared for release.

DAPHNE EVIATAR: That's a large number out of the 166 there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Daphne Eviatar is a senior counsel at Human Rights First.

EVIATAR: It should not be a major problem for the United States to develop a process by which it can transfer detainees to Yemen. They can get some sort of a hearing there. If necessary, they can be detained there, or they can go through a rehabilitation program if that's more appropriate. There are a lot of ways that the United States can handle that transfer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials say the president will say as much in his address. He's expected to appoint someone whose sole responsibility will be to move detainees out of Guantanamo. And the Yemenis are likely to be the first ones to go.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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