WASHINGTON — Forecasting the changing nature of threats against the U.S. for years to come, President Barack Obama says "America is at a crossroads." And so, too, is his presidency's counterterrorism policy, which has long struggled to balance protecting the nation from terror attacks while upholding Americans' rights.
The Obama administration this week acknowledged that four Americans have been killed – three of whom were not specifically targeted – in secretive overseas drone strikes against al-Qaida extremists since 2009. And in a wide-ranging speech Thursday, Obama warned that Americans must be vigilant against increasing homegrown threats from within, including from fellow citizens like the surviving suspect in last month's Boston Marathon bombing.
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 U.S. image around the world.
Instead, he defended on Thursday his continued and expanded use of the spy drones, which have killed thousands of terror suspects and civilians, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He hinted in the speech that he would give law enforcement officials new authority to seize suspicious communications within the United States.
And Obama defiantly promised to push forward with his longtime goal of closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 166 terror suspects are being held – but said it's largely up to a resistant Congress to get it done.
Obama acknowledged it's a tough line to walk in striking a balance.
"Now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions – about the nature of today's threats and how we should confront them," Obama told his audience of students, national security and human rights experts and counterterror officials at the National Defense University.
"In the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are," he said.
The president outlined a narrower scope of threats against the United States in the years ahead, with the war in Afghanistan winding down and an al-Qaida that has splintered – in part, due to the very attacks he authorized. But as al-Qaida has fragmented, it has given rise to smaller networks and homegrown extremists that pose increased risks to Americans, he said.
Some Republicans criticized Obama as underestimating the strength of al-Qaida and objected to his plans to try to repeal broad executive powers to use military force against the nation's enemies. Congress granted those powers to George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaida," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading voice among Republicans, told reporters after the speech. "To somehow argue that al-Qaida is on the run comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible. Al-Qaida is expanding all over the Middle East, from Mali to Yemen and all places in between."
Obama's address came amid increased pressure from Congress on both the drone program and the status of the Guantanamo Bay prison. A rare bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has pressed for more openness and more oversight of the secretive targeted drone strikes, while liberal lawmakers have pointed to a hunger strike at Guantanamo in pressing Obama to renew his stalled efforts to close the Navy detention center.
The president cast the drone program as legal, effective and necessary as terror threats progress. But he acknowledged that the targeted strikes are no "cure-all" and said he is haunted by the civilians unintentionally killed.
In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by the unmanned aircraft since 2003, according to a New America Foundation database of the strikes. However, the secrecy surrounding the drone program makes it impossible for the public to know for sure how many people have been killed in in strikes, and of those, how many were intended targets.
The Justice Department revealed Wednesday that four Americans had been killed in U.S. drone strikes abroad. Just one was an intended target – Anwar al-Awlaki, who officials say had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil. The other three Americans, including al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, were unintended victims.
"How good, really, is our system for targeting and reducing unintended casualties?" said Elizabeth Goitein, an attorney and co-director of the Brennan Center Justice's Liberty and National Security Program at the New York University law school. "These three American citizens were not targeted, and their deaths were collateral damage."
She added: "The talk about being more transparent and preserving our liberties is talk. It's rhetoric."
In newly public White House guidelines governing when to launch drones, the U.S. will not strike if a suspect can be captured, and attacks may only target an "imminent" threat. Though the White House prefers greater military responsibility for drones, the CIA will play a continued role with strikes in Yemen and control the program in Pakistan.
The president said he was open to additional measures to further regulate the drone program, including creating a special court system to regulate strikes. Congress is already considering whether to set up a court to decide when drones overseas can target U.S. citizens linked to al-Qaida.
In seeking to close Guantanamo, Obama faces many of the same roadblocks that stymied his efforts to shutter the prison when he first took office. Many Republican lawmakers oppose Obama's efforts to bring some of the detainees to the U.S. to face trial.
But a new hunger strike by prisoners protesting their conditions and indefinite confinement has refocused Obama on efforts to close the detention center. He announced a fresh push Thursday to transfer approved detainees to their home countries and lift a ban on transfers to Yemen.
The end of the Yemen restrictions is key, given that 30 of the 56 prisoners eligible for transfer are Yemeni. Obama halted all transfers to the poor Middle Eastern nation in 2010 after a man trained in Yemen was convicted in a failed bombing attempt of an airliner bound for Detroit.
McCain pledged to urge his colleagues to work with Obama to shut the facility, but Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday's speech did not convince him.
"This speech was only necessary due to a deeply inconsistent counterterrorism policy, one that maintains it is more humane to kill a terrorist with a drone than detain and interrogate him at Guantanamo Bay," McKeon said.
Closer to home, Obama also warned of "the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders." He said law enforcement authorities would be reviewed, "so we can intercept new types of communication and build in privacy protections to prevent abuse." He did not provide specifics.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Kimberly Dozier and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.