President says drone strikes ‘legal and necessary’

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Barack Obama has offered his most vigorous public defence of drone strikes, describing them as legal, effective and necessary.

The US president’s remarks came as he sought to move America beyond the war effort of the past dozen years, defining a narrower terror threat from smaller networks and home-grown extremists, rather than the grandiose plots of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida.

“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” he said in a speech at Washington’s National Defence University. “What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”

Mr Obama also implored Congress to close the much-criticised Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba and pledged to allow greater oversight of the controversial unmanned drone programme. But he plans to keep the most lethal efforts with the unmanned aircraft under the CIA’s control.

It is an awkward position for the president, a constitutional lawyer, who took office pledging to undo policies that infringed on Americans’ civil liberties and hurt the US image around the world.

His address came amid increased pressure from Congress on both issues. A rare coalition of bi-partisan politicians has pressed for more openness and more oversight of the highly-secretive targeted drone strikes.

Liberals have pointed to a hunger strike of more than 100 prisoners at Guantanamo – the military was earlier this month force-feeding 32 of them –in pressing for stalled efforts to close the jail to be renewed. The president cast the drone programme as crucial in a counterterror effort that will rely less on the widespread deployment of US troops as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by drones since 2003, according to the New America Foundation, which maintains a database of the strikes. However, the secrecy surrounding the programme makes it impossible for the public to know for sure how many people have been killed and how many were intended targets.