On the eve of the president's speech, the 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.
In that letter, Holder said only one of the U.S. citizens killed in counterterror operations beyond war zones -- Anwar al-Awlaki, who had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil -- was specifically targeted by American forces. He said the other three Americans were not targeted in the U.S. strikes.
Though Obama sought to give more transparency to the drone program, the strikes will largely remain highly secret for the public. Congress is already briefed on every strike that U.S. drones take outside Afghanistan and Iraq during the war there, Obama said, but those briefings are largely classified and held privately.
The president said he was open to additional measures to further regulate the drone program, including creating a special court system to regulate strikes, similar to one that signs off on government surveillance in espionage and terror cases. Congress is already considering whether to set up a court to decide when drones overseas can target U.S. citizens linked to al-Qaida.
White House officials said the president had originally planned to deliver Thursday's speech earlier this month, but it was delayed as the administration grappled with a trio of other controversies, including the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS' targeting of conservative groups and government monitoring of reporters.
Also Thursday, Obama reaffirmed his stalled 2008 campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where some terror suspects are held. Lifting the ban on transfers of some Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen is a key step in jumpstarting that process, given that 30 of the 56 prisoners eligible for transfer are Yemeni.
Obama halted all transfers to Yemen after the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt of an airliner over Detroit. The convicted bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, trained in Yemen.
Congress and the White House have sparred since Obama took office in 2009 over the fate of the suspects and whether they can be brought to trial on U.S. soil. In the meantime, the detainees have been held for years with diminishing hope that they will charged with crimes or given trials.
Obama acknowledged that the politics of closing Guantanamo are difficult, but he made the case that "history will cast harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those who fail to end it."
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was open to a proposal from Obama on the future of Guantanamo Bay. But that plan has to consist of more than political talking points, he said.
"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
This week, the Pentagon asked Congress for more than $450 million for maintaining and upgrading the Guantanamo prison. More than 100 of the prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, and the military earlier this month was force-feeding 32 of them to keep them from starving to death.