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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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May 23rd, 2013
04:48 PM ET

Obama defends secret drone strikes

President Barack Obama defended his administration's counter terrorism policies Thursday, specifically, his covert drone war. The president admitted publicly, for the first time and in his own words, that he approved the 2011 drone killing of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the suspected face of al Qaeda in Yemen.

"I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process," Obama said Thursday. "But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America ... his citizenship should no more serve as a shield, than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team."

The president did not discuss at any length the three other Americans his administration this week acknowledged it killed in drone strikes, including al-Awalki's teenage son.

He asserted that the core of al Qaeda is gutted, but said the menace of terrorism has mutated in the time since 9/11, to al Qaeda affiliates and wannabes, homegrown extremism, and threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses overseas.

Drones, he asserted, are often the safest way to conduct the fight.

The president said that civilian deaths in drone strikes outside war zones will haunt his chain of command for "as long as we live."

But he also asserted that they are legal because the U.S. is at war with al Qaeda. As an olive branch to critics, he said his administration will consider options for making drone strikes more transparent, like an independent oversight board, or a special court to approve the attacks.

The president ran into some trouble as he moved onto another long-standing controversy - the prison at Guantanamo Bay. A heckler slammed his failure to close the prison, despite signing an executive order to do so in his very first hours in office. More than 100 of the 166 detainees at Gitmo have been on a hunger strike for months now.

Before he could address that, Medea Benjamin, an activist with the group Code Pink, beat him to the punch.

"There are 102 on a hunger strike, these desperate people!" Benjamin shouted during Obama's speech.

"I'm about to address it ma'am, but you gotta let me speak," Obama replied, but Benjamin continued talking over him, saying "You are commander-in-chief, you should close Guantanamo today."

"Why don't you sit down, and I'll tell you exactly want I'm going to do," Obama said.

Benjamin interrupted the president several more times, eventually bringing the entire speech to a complete standstill. It took several minutes to haul her out.

Obama eventually diverted from his prepared remarks to address the situation head-on.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said," said Obama.

"Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school, immigrants coming to our shores... a citizen, shouting her concerns at a president," said Obama.

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