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Obama to set limits on use of drone raids

US president says the military will be given the responsibility of unmanned aerial programme, taking it away from the CIA. Omar Rahman reports from New York

NEW YORK // The US president Barack Obama last night outlined plans to restrict the covert use of drones for targeted killing of terrorism suspects and to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

Mr Obama defended the use of drones as effective, legal and just, but said he would introduce official procedures for their use after mounting criticism.

"Beyond Afghanistan 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," Mr Obama said.

Drones have been integral to his approach to fighting abroad, scaling back military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while relying heavily on targeted killings.

The use of drone strikes is deeply unpopular in Pakistan and Yemen because of civilian casualties.

The government's drone programme has also been questioned at home and was a central issue in John Brennan's confirmation hearings as CIA director. Mr Brennan oversaw the expansion of the programme under the president.

Mr Obama left open the question of the CIA's role in operating the drone programme.

He said yesterday that he would impose higher standards on authorising strikes and shift more responsibility to the military, but not that he would take the CIA's hand off the trigger.

There are parallel drone programmes operated by the CIA and the US defence department.

Mr Brennan has said he would like to see the CIA revert to its primary role of intelligence gatherer, not the paramilitary organisation it has come to resemble after the September 11 attacks.

"There is a political concern that the drone strikes were either out of control or at the verge of legality," said Dr James Lewis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

"There are political benefits to putting the drone strikes under the Department of Defence because you have more political oversight, you have stricter adherence to the laws of armed conflict, you have a different command and control structure."

In his speech, Mr Obama also declared that he would renew efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

"Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO," he said.

"I have asked the Department of Defence to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions.

"I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the state department and defence department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries."

Mr Obama pledged during his first presidential campaign to close Guantanamo the day after taking office, but backed down after opposition from some officials in Congress. There are currently 166 detainees at the prison. Some are already approved for transfer or release, and others for prosecution. Others however, have been considered too dangerous for release but will likely not be prosecuted.

The president's speech has come early in his second term as he tries to address criticism of his national security policy, which has been largely in sync with that of his predecessor, George W Bush, whose policies he criticised before taking office.

The use of drones by the US for targeted killing began under Mr Bush in 2004. According to the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, the Bush administration conducted 49 drone strikes between 2004 and early 2009, when he left office.

Since that time, the Obama administration has expanded the programme tremendously, conducting nearly 400 drone strikes in a shorter period.

Drone operations have been conducted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, with only the first being an official war zone.

The administration has claimed that it uses drones for the targeted killing of Al Qaeda leadership. The expansion of the programme under the Obama administration, however, has included what have been called "signature strikes", targeting individuals or groups whose behaviour appears threatening or resembles that of the enemy.

Despite the criticism, the US drone programme is widely popular among Americans. In a poll conducted in February 2012, more than 80 per cent of Americans approved of the Obama administration's use of drones.


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Updated: May 24, 2013 04:00 AM

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