Obama looks to recapture his constitutionalist bonafides on national security

Opinion

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The constitutional lawyer-turned-president must be tired of being cast by critics as acting outside the bounds of the Constitution.

President Barack Obama’s nearly hour-long speech on national security Thursday included only a few new policies and did not reverse many of his more controversial national security stances.

The Obama administration will still use drones to kill suspected terrorists, even American citizens in some cases, although their use will be limited to those who “pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and strikes in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are likely to be reduced in the future.

The administration will still prosecute people who leak national security information to journalists and hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, unless Congress explicitly allows the closure of that facility. Obama is not doing everything he can to reassure civil liberties advocates or those who worry about an overly-powerful executive branch.

Obama doctrine is reinforced

Instead of dramatically shifting policy, the speech, as Obama and his team intended, formalized the president’s general doctrine on national security and announced a clearly-defined set of goals and strategies which will give the public a clearer way to evaluate Obama’s policies and their impact.

And it was a detailed rebuttal to critics, particularly those in Congress, who have argued the administration has redefined American national security policy with little input from the public or lawmakers and too quickly resorted to controversial policies, such as seizing the phone records of a number of Associated Press reporters to investigate an alleged leak and killing hundreds in drone strikes over the last five years.

In particular, the president strongly and repeatedly defended his use of drones, arguing they were vastly preferable to the use of American troops on the ground to capture suspected terrorists and that the number of civilians killed in the strikes has been overstated.

Drones used as a last resort

“America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces,” the president said. “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.”

Rejecting the notion his administration favors killing terrorists over capturing them, Obama emphasized he used drones only as a last resort and through a process with strong oversight.

“The use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them,” Obama said.

At the same time, Obama announced a series of actions that will directly address his critics, even if they don’t change the underlying policies. The administration, as the president announced today, will hold classified briefings with Congress to explain its exact criteria for targeted killings of suspected terrorists abroad, giving lawmakers a stronger role in the process.

The Department of Defense, instead of the CIA, will have a greater role in the strikes, shifting to a department that is required to detail more of its actions to lawmakers.  Obama’s emphasis in his speech on balancing prosecution of leaks with allowing journalists to investigate the government is likely to reassure the press, which has sharply attacked his administration since the disclosure of Department of Justice investigations into the phone records of journalists at Fox News and the Associated Press. The president said DOJ officials would meet with editors at key publications and discuss how leaks investigations would be conducted in the future.

The left-right divide does not exist

The speech reflected the complicated dynamic of the debate about Obama’s national security policies. The traditional left-right divide in Washington largely does not exist on these issues. Most lawmakers in Congress broadly support Obama’s policies, such as using drones instead of sending troops into countries like Pakistan and Yemen to kill terrorists and trying to limit national security leaks. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have unified in blocking the administration from transferring detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay to prisons within the United States.

The loudest voices against Obama’s policies are civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union aligned with some of the most conservative lawmakers  in Congress, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who worry about an overly-powerful executive branch.

But there was general agreement in Washington that Obama had not sufficiently explained his policies and given either the press or lawmakers enough information to provide oversight, a criticism Obama himself acknowledged was fair. The speech and the accompanying actions from the administration were in part intended to quiet that critique.

Obama’s moves are likely to silence some critics on both the left and right who have unfavorably compared him to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush in expanding executive power too broadly, and argued he was setting a bad precedent in national security policy for his successors in the Oval Office. But they don’t broadly change Obama’s national security approach, with its emphasis on drone strikes and using means of power that don’t involve explicit authorization from Congress for every move.

Follow Perry Bacon on Twitter at @perrybaconjr.