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President Obama to address drones, Gitmo in security speech

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 8:42 a.m. MDT

In this May 21, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. The U.S. will refocus its attention on homegrown terror threats against Americans, President Barack Obama will say in a Thursday speech that is forecast as skimpy on any new sweeping policies. The move reflects the global fragmentation of al-Qaida’s top leaders as the U.S. tries to safeguard against attacks like last month’s deadly Boston Marathon bombings.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is set to at least partially lift the veil of secrecy surrounding U.S.-directed drone strikes around the world, a key component of counterterrorism strategy, as he outlines the contours of the continuing threat to American security.

On the eve of the president's speech at the National Defense University, the Obama administration revealed for the first time that a fourth American citizen had been killed in secretive drone strikes abroad. The killings of three other Americans in counterterror operations since 2009 were widely known before a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy acknowledged the four deaths.

Obama's speech is expected to reaffirm his national security priorities — from homegrown terrorists to killer drones to the enemy combatants held at the military-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — but make no new sweeping policy announcements.

The White House has offered few clues on how the president will address questions that have dogged his administration for years and, critics say, given foreign allies mixed signals about U.S. intentions in some of the world's most volatile areas.

Obama will try to refocus an increasingly apathetic public on security issues as his administration grapples with a series of unrelated controversies stemming from the attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS' targeting of conservative groups and government monitoring of reporters. His message will also be carefully analyzed by an international audience that has had to adapt to what counterterror expert Peter Singer described as the administration's disjointed and often short-sighted security policies.

"He is really wresting with a broader task, which is laying out an overdue case for regularizing our counterterrorism strategy itself," said Singer, director of the Brookings Institution's 21st Century Security and Intelligence Center in Washington. "It's both a task in terms of being a communicator, and a task in term of being a decider."

The White House said Obama's speech coincides with the signing of new "presidential policy guidance" on when the U.S. can use drone strikes, though it was unclear what that guidance entailed and whether Obama would outline its specifics in his remarks.

Chief among the topics the speech will focus on, officials said, is the administration's expanded use of unmanned spy drones to kill hundreds of people in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where terrorists have taken refuge.

Obama has pledged to be more open with the public about the scope of the drone strikes. But a growing number of lawmakers in Congress are seeking to limit U.S. authorities that support the deadly drone strikes, which have targeted a wider range of threats than initially anticipated.

The president is expected to talk generally about the need for greater transparency in the drone strikes and may allude to the desire to give greater responsibility for those operations to the military. But he is likely to tread carefully on an issue that involves classified CIA operations.

The U.S. military has begun to take over the bulk of the strikes, replacing the CIA in nearly all areas except Pakistan, according to an administration official who was not authorized to discuss the plans on the record and spoke on condition of anonymity. That shift in responsibility has given Congress greater oversight of the secretive program.

Obama "believes that we need to be as transparent about a matter like this as we can, understanding that there are national security implications to this issue and to the broader issues involved in counterterrorism policy," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.

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