During President Obama’s first major counterterrorism address of his second term, he said the United States cannot continue waging what he described as a boundless global war on terror. He also discussed his administration’s efforts to close down the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. He was repeatedly confronted by CodePink’s Medea Benjamin in the audience, ultimately stopping his speech to address her directly. We air the complete exchange between them. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” Obama said in response to Benjamin. “Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.” Click here to see our interview with Benjamin about her act of civil disobedience.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with President Obama’s first major counterterrorism address of his second term. In a speech Thursday, he defended the secret overseas drone war but said the United States cannot continue waging what he described as a boundless global war on terror. Obama’s comments came one day after Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed U.S. drone strikes had killed four U.S. citizens in Yemen and Pakistan. According to McClatchy newspapers, Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who could be targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed “lethal actions.” Up until Thursday, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed “senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces” plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States. But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it. That’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists, insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in presidential policy guidance that I signed yesterday.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his address, Obama also discussed his administration’s efforts to close down the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay and was interrupted multiple times by CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, ultimately stopping to address her directly. This is their complete exchange.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When I ran for president the first time, John McCain supported closing Gitmo. This was a bipartisan issue. No person has ever escaped one of our supermax or military prisons here in the United States, ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees. They’re in our prisons. And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification, beyond politics, for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never been opened.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Excuse me, President Obama, you are commander-in-chief—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today—so—so, let me finish, ma’am. So, today—so today, once again—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: There are 102 people on a hunger strike—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: —these desperate people [inaudible]—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m about to address it, ma’am, but you’ve got to let me speak. I’m about to address it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: You are commander-in-chief.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let me address it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: You can close Guantánamo today.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why don’t you let me address it, ma’am?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: You can release those 86 prisoners cleared for release [inaudible]—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why don’t you sit down? And I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: —today. That includes 57 Yemenis.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, ma’am.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It includes Shaker Aamer.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Ma’am, thank you. You should let me finish my sentence. Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked—I have asked the Department of Defense 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 Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case-by-case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Eighty six were cleared already.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where we—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Release them today!
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s [inaudible]—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, ma’am, let me—let me finish. Let me—let me finish, ma’am. I—you know, this is part of free speech, is you being able to speak, but also you listening and me being able to speak. All right? Thank you.
Now, even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: just how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted, for example, because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.
And I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future, 10 years from now or 20 years from now, when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are hold—being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about. Is that who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?
Our sense of justice is stronger than that. We have prosecuted scores of terrorists in our courts. That includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit, and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It’s in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is, as we speak, serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison here in the United States. In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “The way we treat you is the measure of our own liberty.” When—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16-year-old American citizen—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When we—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: —killed [inaudible]?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We went—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old American?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He went on to—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Why was he killed?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We went on—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you to stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe. And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantánamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law. You’re a constitutional lawyer.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think that the—and I’m going off script, as you might expect, here. The—the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously—obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking Thursday after he was interrupted repeatedly by Medea Benjamin during his major address on counterterrorism strategy. When we come back, we’ll speak with co-founder of CodePink, Medea Benjamin, as well as the other co-founder of CodePink, Diane Wilson, who’s in the midst of a hunger fast to close Guantánamo Bay. It’s day 25. Stay with us.