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Obama defends drones: They are 'effective' and 'legal'

President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on on May 23, 2013. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on on May 23, 2013.

President Obama on Thursday offered a clear defense of the country’s controversial drone program, arguing it’s both legal and vital for national security.

The president declared the U.S. is still at war with terrorist groups like al Qaeda. "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,” Obama said at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

The remarks come as Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged on Wednesday for the first time that the U.S. killed four Americans in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, including militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

The president outlined the legal guidelines surrounding the use of armed drones. “I don’t not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen…Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil. But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against American and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens…his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team,” he said, referencing al-Awlaki.

He acknowledged that the technology raises a number of questions about who is targeted, the civilian casualty toll, the risk of creating new enemies, accountability and morality. He argued, however, that it’s legal and when used sparingly can be effective and amount to few civilian deaths.

“As commander-in-chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties—not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana'a and Kabul and Mogadishu—where terrorists seek a foothold,” said Obama. “Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.”

Obama said that he’s asked his administration to review proposals to extend oversight of the drone program and wants to work with Congress on establishing an independent court to review future potential strikes.

Related: Obama's speech leaves human rights questions unanswered

The president also addressed the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay that holds several terror suspects. Obama has repeatedly argued on the campaign trail it’s unfair to hold prisoners without charge. Critics say his failure to close the detention camp has hurt U.S. standing in the Muslim world. He also announced he would lift the moratorium on transferring the prison’s Yemeni detainees to their home country in effort to lower the number of 166 people being detained, many of whom have gone on a hunger strike.

"Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system," the president said.

The government of Yemen welcomed President Obama’s decision to lift the moratorium.

Yemen will “work with the United States to take all necessary steps to ensure the safe return of its detainees and will continue working towards their gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society,” said government spokesman Mohammed Albasha.

The speech was not without its drama, however. A heckler repeatedly interrupted the president during his remarks.

And Obama's address was met with skepticism and outright anger by Republicans, including from drone strike critic Sen. Rand Paul, who famously gave a nearly 13 hour filibuster speech highlighting his concerns about president’s drone policy in March.

“I’m glad the president finally acknowledged that American citizens deserve some form of due process. But I still have concerns over whether flash cards and PowerPoint presentations represent due process; my preference would be to try accused U.S. citizens for treason in a court of law,” the Kentucky lawmaker said.

GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agreed that Gitmo should be closed at a press conference following the speech, but took the opportunity to criticize the administration’s foreign policy as a whole.

“What would I have the United States of America do? Lead. L-E-A-D. Four letter word. The president does not lead. And I get that from every single one of these leaders no matter where I go," said McCain.

Graham said if Obama doesn’t change his policies “the Middle East is going to blow up and we’re going to get hit again here at home.”