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Obama: America at a "crossroads" in fighting terrorism

Updated: 4:03 p.m. ET

In a sweeping speech addressing the nation's counterterrorism strategy, President Obama on Thursday unveiled new restrictions on the nation's controversial targeted killing policy, and - despite repeated interruptions from a heckler -- officially outlined plans to restart transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to third countries.

During an hour-long speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama outlined his strategy for addressing a changing global climate, and stressed the need to understand and address the shifting threats facing the nation.

Unlike in years past, Mr. Obama argued, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is no longer the greatest terrorist risk confronting the U.S. Instead, he said, the U.S. has seen the emergence of threats from localized al Qaeda affiliates around the world, as well as from "radicalized individuals here in the United States."

"America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our time. Deranged or alienated individuals - often U.S. citizens or legal residents - can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad," Mr. Obama said. "Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism."

And force, he argued, is not the only solution to combating these dangers. Mr. Obama argued that the U.S. must also support other countries in their pursuit of democracy, work to promote peace abroad, and supply the necessary foreign aid to help countries modernize their economies, improve their education, and encourage business growth.

"I have called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges," he said.

He also addressed the Wednesday revelation that that four American citizens have been killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2009, and outlined a change in strategy with regard to how and under what circumstances the U.S. will employ those targeted strikes going forward.

Even while he defended the use of drones as both "effective" and "legal," Mr. Obama argued that, once the U.S. war in Afghanistan has wound down, "we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."

Consequently, he announced new policy guidelines making it tougher to issue drone strikes "outside areas of active hostilities." The guidelines also mandate that there must be a legal basis for using lethal strikes; that the target must pose a "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons"; and that certain preconditions are met regarding the target's location, the risk of killing civilians; and the lack of other alternatives. The guidelines additionally require that when the U.S. does choose to use lethal force in foreign territories, "international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally."

"As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion," the president said. "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance."

Following up on a promise made last month in a press conference, Mr. Obama also elaborated upon a plan to ultimately close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which he said "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

While discussing his plan - which included the appointment of a new senior envoy with the job of transferring detainees to third countries, the lifting of a moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, and a new site for holding military commissions in the U.S. - the president was interrupted three times by an activist from the liberal group Code Pink.

"You are commander in chief - you can close Guantanamo today," she cried. "It's been 11 years."

The woman was escorted out, and Mr. Obama, after noting that the topic is "worth being passionate about," reiterated his call to close the detention center.

"I know the politics are hard," he said. "But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future - 10 years from now, or 20 years from now - when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"

In a press conference after the speech, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he is ready to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- but that "we hope there is a coherent plan."

"You need a plan," added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

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