President Obama will say he sees a day when the War on Terror comes to an end in a much anticipated speech at the National Defense University on Thursday. That day is not today. Control over drone strikes will move from the CIA to the military, The New York Times' Charlie Savage and Peter Baker report. The transition is expected to take six months, and Obama might not address it explicitly, because the CIA program is classified. The Obama administration's new position is that drone strikes can only be used against people who post "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans," which the Times thinks could mean the end of "signature strikes" — in which unknown people are killed because they're thought to be members of al Qaeda or an affiliated group.
So, when-ish will the War on Terror end? It's going to be a while — maybe long after Obama has left office. "A Pentagon official suggested last week that the current conflict could continue for 10 to 20 years," the Times reports. Last year, facing the possibility that Obama could lose the 2012 election, the administration began working on creating clear rules for the drone program. So while Obama is justifying the use of drone strikes at a time when they've come under a lot of criticism, he might also be establishing new norms ahead of a possible President Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or whoever.
Obviously Obama trusted his own administration to control the drone program without these rules. In his new book, The Way of the Knife, the Times's Mark Mazzetti reports that Obama's "kill list" was the product of an early effort to "an early attempt... to establish procedures for the conduct of a secret war that most believed would last years beyond" Obama's administration. But the rules weren't totally binding. Mazzetti writes that "as much assome officials tried to keep strict criteria about who could be added to the kill list, those criteria were sometimes eased." According to Mazzetti and Daniel Klaidman's book Kill or Capture, when General James Cartwright asked Obama why the CIA was "building a second Air Force" with its drone fleet, Obama replied "The CIA gets what it wants."
In his speech, Obama will also address what to do with some terrorist suspects caught overseas instead of killed by drones: the people in Guantanamo Bay. He'll pledge to renew efforts to close the detention facility, and appoint a State Department official to oversee shrinking the population there. Guantanamo — where 170 people are held without trial in perpetuity — is a relic of a previous administration that is disturbing on the grand civil liberties scale and at the tiny human scale. Just like drones. Obama is paying Bush's favor forward with a theoretical end to perpetual war without borders.