June 13, 2013

Making It Count: Earning Credit For Military Experience

Transitioning from military life to college can be difficult, especially when it comes transferring credit.

Rich Bennett spent a year in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the U.S. Army. As part of his training, he was taught the county’s main language, Pashto.

“When I took the class, they said this will fill your Bachelor of Arts requirement for your language," said Bennett.

The course involved 420 hours of instruction. He received a certificate of completion from the Defense Language Institute for the training at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.

When he left the Army, he enrolled at Northern Illinois University to finish his  Communications degree. Bennett said he was told Pashto would not count toward his language requirement.

“A university sees that and they're, like, ‘that’s not anything anyone’s ever heard of, that’s not a language we offer.’ That was my first hurdle,” said Bennett.

So he signed up for Spanish for the summer,  but the class was canceled. He considered area community colleges, but those didn’t work out either.

With the help of counselors, he found a language that could be taken for only two semesters (instead of four) to fulfill the requirement. “I don’t even know how to pronounce it," Bennett said. "It’s K-h-m-e-r."

Khmer is the primary ethnic language of Cambodia.

"I guarantee I’m never going to go to Southeast Asia or wherever they speak it. I’m just taking it to graduate so that I can get out and start working. I’m 32. If I don’t start working, my wife’s going to kill me," said Bennett.

Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Borggren is familiar with stories like this. The American Council on Education, or ACE, uses faculty to review military courses offered at bases. They issue guidelines that colleges can use to consider credit.

"Unfortunately it's not as simple as student veterans themselves being able to say 'this should count for that.' Where we've encountered some, I wouldn't even call it resistance, I would say a ‘lack of an understanding’ in terms of how to do it, is at the transfer specialist level, the campuses themselves," Borggren said.

Cathy Sandeen is with the American Council on Education.

“When you think about all the things that service members need to do and know to be successful in their jobs, and in many cases, their jobs are life and death type jobs, it's a broad array of information and knowledge that they need to have, so faculty are able to go in there and make those connections," said Sandeen.

Read the American Council on Education's recommendations in their Military Guide

But it is difficult to review every course offered in the military. ACE only reviews courses requested by the Department of Defense, not by individuals or universities. In Bennett’s case, he said he was told by ACE his Pashto course wasn’t among those reviewed, so there wasn’t a recommendation for NIU to take into consideration.

“I’m not saying they are doing a bad job. I’m just saying there’s just too much in the Army that we can learn that they can keep up with,” said Bennett.

Colleges often use a combination of factors to determine if military experience is worth college credit. At NIU, Admissions Director Kimberley Buster-Williams said counselors start with military transcripts and cross-check that with other students. She adds the process is easier when a veteran is studying in a field similar to their military experience.

“It is case by case, but we do maintain a database so, as credits are reviewed, that is available in the database so future students don’t have to start the process all over again. So it builds on itself,” said Buster-Williams.

Bennett was able to get physical education credit without hassle.

Rock Valley Community College offers four physical education credits for students who complete basic training. Records Assistant Tina Swiger said the school considers the ACE recommendations.

“We really take what the students have done or have learned, and we let the instructors and associate deans who are teaching these classes make the decision of whether or not the credit should be awarded, whether it really is what we are offering,” said Swiger.

Connecting all of the dots is something Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Borggren said is a work in progress.

“One of the ways that we've worked to overcome that is by bringing in the folks who do those federal recommendations from the American Council on Education and having them do in-depth workshops with transfer specialists from across the state, saying, 'Here's how we arrived at it, here's the Illinois educator who was actually part of this process and let him tell you about his experience when he went to the base,'" said Borggren.

NIU student Rich Bennett said that's not likely to help him, but he would like future students to avoid the red tape he went through.

“If I went to the University of Illinois and I took English 101 and I went to NIU with that transcript, they would say ‘yes, U of I. I have heard of that," Bennett said. "This is a transcript that was easy for you to procure, that said English 101.’ That’s how it should be. I think everyone should look at military training and say ‘this is equivalent.’ If you can fight a war with this information, you can definitely go to a university with that information.”

June 07, 2013

U.S. Drone Strike Reportedly Kills Seven in Pakistan

A U.S. drone aircraft fired two missiles at a compound in a remote area of northwest Pakistan, killing seven people Friday night, according to reports. Pakistani officials who spoke about the strike to the AP say it killed seven militants.

"The missiles reportedly hit the remote village of Shokhel in the Shawal valley, some 100km (60 miles) southwest of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan," the BBC reports.

North Waziristan, a mountainous tribal area along the border with Afghanistan, is seen as a stronghold for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

The strike comes two days after Pakistan's new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was sworn in — an occasion Sharif used to voice his displeasure, shared by many Pakistanis, with U.S. strikes in the country.

"We respect the sovereignty of others, but others don't respect our sovereignty. These daily drone attacks must stop," Sharif said, as reported by NBC News.

Friday's attack is the second since President Obama spoke in late May of aiming for a new balance of priorities in America's fight against terrorism, promising a new emphasis on capturing suspects, instead of killing them.

"America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us," Obama said, "mindful of James Madison's warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"

The president also said that military incursions such as the one that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death "cannot be the norm." But U.S. officials have privately said that specific rules will apply to Pakistan and Afghanistan for as long as U.S. troops are in that area, reports The New York Times.

On May 29, a U.S. drone strike was credited with killing the No. 2 leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman, along with several other people. Like Friday's strike, that attack also took place in the North Waziristan tribal region.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales
(AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock, File)
June 05, 2013

U.S. Soldier Pleads Guilty In Afghan Shooting Rampage

A U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in two rampages last year has pleaded guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales will be questioned by a military judge and may give an account of the massacre.

He left a US outpost in Kandahar province in the early hours of 11 March 2012, attacking two villages nearby.

Family members of those killed have told the BBC they were outraged he might not die.

"We will not be satisfied unless he is executed," Haji Abdul Baqi, whose cousins were killed or injured in the attack, told BBC Afghan.

"If they don't execute him, they are showing their power. He martyred 16 of our people, but they are not executing the one person who did all that. Would they forgive us if we killed 16 Americans?"

Most victims were women and children.


Bales's lawyers have said he is contrite about the killings and have said he will admit to "very specific facts" at the plea hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Lawyer John Henry Browne described Bales as "crazed" and "broken" on the night of the attack.

The judge, as well as the commander of Lewis-McChord, must approve any plea deal. A military jury would then decide if a life prison term for Bales would include the possibility of parole.

At the time of the attack, Bales was serving his fourth tour of duty and had been drinking alcohol and snorting Valium.

In addition to the 16 murdered, six Afghans were injured.

Seventeen victims were women or children, and many of them were shot in the head. Some of the bodies were piled up and burnt.

Bales' defence team said they had determined the soldier would not be able to prove any claim of insanity or diminished capacity.

While prosecutors originally said they would seek the death penalty, no US service member has been executed in more than 50 years.

Bradley Manning
(Patrick Semansky/AP)
June 03, 2013

Intent to Harm at Center of Bradley Manning's Trial

In the three years since his arrest, Bradley Manning, the slight Army private first class with close-cropped blond hair and thick military glasses, has become less of a character than a cause.

"Bradley Manning is a very polarizing figure. People either think that he is a hero or they think he's a traitor," says Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "I actually think that he's somewhere in between."

Manning is accused of one of the biggest leaks of classified information in history. Prosecutors say he downloaded thousands of diplomatic cables and war field reports and sent them to the website WikiLeaks.

Goitein will follow Manning's trial, which begins Monday at a military base in Maryland, for what it says about the government's system for handling secret material.

"I think this case really does illustrate one of the harms of overclassification, which is that when people, day in and day out, who are working with classified information see that there are so many documents that are completely innocuous that are classified, they lose respect for the system," she says.

Manning's supporters say he deserves an award for blowing the whistle on war crimes, civilian casualties and torture. Instead, they say, he was abused by the U.S. military, which held him in solitary confinement for months in a brig in Virginia.

Defense lawyer David Coombs made rare public remarks at a rally last year.

"Brad's treatment at Quantico will forever be etched, I believe, in our nation's history as a disgraceful moment in time," he said.

Manning has already agreed to plead guilty to 10 lesser criminal charges, but not the most serious offenses — including violations of the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence.

The government will need to prove Manning had reason to believe the leaks would hurt national security. But Manning is expected to argue that he had no intent to harm anyone.

The case is already one of the longest and most complex in military history, says Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale.

"The unanswered question is why this train has run so badly off the tracks," he says.

Fidell says the military justice system is supposed to prize speed and efficiency, but the drift in the Manning prosecution and other failings undermine public confidence.

"It's unfolding at a time that may be a tipping point for the military justice system generally," he says. "And what I'm talking about specifically is the widespread consternation and dismay about how the military justice system deals with an entirely unrelated type of criminality, which is sexual assault."

The judge in the Manning case has ruled that some witnesses will testify behind closed doors. The case already has a rap for excessive secrecy, since many court filings have been impossible to view for reporters and Manning's vocal supporters.

One of them is Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who spoke about his frustration at that rally last year.

"It's hard to hear sometimes. You get no access to any of the court documents, none of the court orders, none of the motions filed — nothing," he said. "And I'm a lawyer, and I sit in that courtroom and it seems like a completely secret proceeding to me."

The trial is expected to last 12 weeks.


Sammy L. Davis
(John Harrell/AP)
May 28, 2013

Indiana Medal of Honor Recipient to be Honored Again

An Indiana man who received the Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam is thanking the state and military veterans for an exhibit in his name at the Indiana War Memorial.

Sammy Davis of the Owen County town of Freedom was honored Tuesday afternoon by Gov. Mike Pence and others during a ceremonial unveiling of an exhibit recounting his bravery.

In November 1967, then-Pfc. Davis ignored reported warnings to take cover and instead used a machine gun and artillery to return fire against a Viet Cong attack. Davis was a non-swimmer who used an air mattress to cross a river and rescue three wounded soldiers before refusing medical care and joining another howitzer crew.

He received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson the following year.

Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
May 28, 2013

Sen. Durbin: Veteran Disability Claims Procedures Must Change

U.S Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says the way American veterans receive disability claims has "got to change."

His comments come as the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is working on a new digital, paper-less way of handling the claims. The V.A is working to get that done by September.

Durbin said on average, Illinois veterans wait close to a year for payments - which he says is the third-worst rate in the country.

"There is no excuse for people waiting months, sometimes over a year, to get a determination on their disability," Durbin said at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Camp Butler National Cemetery, just outside of Springfield. "We owe it to these veterans to do a much better job."

The Veterans Affairs secretary says the new system should reduce the wait for almost-all disability claims to about four months (125 days) by 2015.

Camp Butler National Cemetery is partially on land that was a military training camp during the Civil War.

May 27, 2013

Military Service Could Replace College Requirements for Police Duty

What is needed to be a police officer in Illinois could change under a proposal that lawmakers are considering. The plan would allow communities to decide if they want to waive college degree requirements for military service.

To serve on the Pontiac police force, you don’t need a college degree, but Police Chief Jim Woolford said he would like to see that requirement change without excluding veterans.

“What we’re really seeing is the need for a mature officer," Woolford said. "Someone with some life experience and what better place to get life experience than in the United States military."

A plan in the Illinois legislature removes an associate’s degree requirement if a police applicant serves two years of honorable active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces or six months of combat duty recognized by the Department of Defense.

Military service could take the place of a bachelor’s degree for three years of honorable active duty or six months of combat duty recognized by the Department of Defense.

In both cases, a person applying to be a police officer must not have a dishonorable discharge.

State Rep. Josh Harms (R- Watseka) is sponsoring the measure in the House, and he said there is no reason to assume a veteran without a college degree is not prepared for law enforcement.

“My undergrad was in music,” Harms said. “Somebody who has that military training would at least be as qualified for police service as somebody with just any degree.”

Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, which must take it up again since additional amendments were added.

wheelchair outside V-A medical center
(David Goldman/AP)
May 26, 2013

America's Vets: Returning Home to a Broken System

The Veterans Administration is taking heat for shortfalls in care for about a million veterans who can't get timely compensation and have been waiting hundreds of days for help, often to no avail.

Frustration with the agency came to a head last Thursday when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was called before a closed-door meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.

"We are aggressively executing a plan that we have put together to fix this decades-old problem and eliminate the backlog, as we have indicated, in 2015," Shinseki said after the meeting.

That's a long time for people in crisis to wait.

Coming Home Hurt

Glenn Smith, a 28-year-old Army veteran from St. Louis, joined the military in 2004.

"I joined because I loved tanks, believe it or not," Smith tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Smith was deployed to Iraq twice between 2006 and 2010; he spent most of four years in combat. He now has an irregular heartbeat, and attributes it to one of the many IED blasts he went through. The irregular heartbeat, discovered during a routine training exercise, led to him being discharged last spring.

Smith described an anxiety attack in March in which "things just [closed] in" on him. It's even happened while he was driving.

"I didn't feel like I had any release or way to break free of it," he says. "I've had memories and nightmares of my experiences while I was in Iraq. Any all that just came rushing to the surface."

Smith also says he has a bad case of PTSD.

His PTSD has been so debilitating, he needs help navigating the VA. He submitted his initial claim about a year ago, but still lacks regular treatment for the disorder.

"Once I got back home to St. Louis, I've been trying to push with the VA here ... [and] trying to get my compensation and also trying to get therapy for my PTSD," he says. "Recently ... I was told my case wouldn't be looked at for another year or so because they're backlogged two years right now."

While he waits, Smith is patching together medical care for his PTSD. His heart condition is getting better, but he's in limbo, waiting for his benefits while he attempts to carry on.

"For the immediate horizon, I'm just trying to find a job so I can feel like I have a sense of moving forward and healing," he says. "And for the fall, I'm actually getting myself into college."

A Backlog Of Assistance

There are almost 900,000 VA benefits claims pending, says Quil Lawrence, NPR's veterans affairs correspondent. He tells Lyden that VA has set a goal that it should only take 125 days to process each claim.

"Currently, almost 600,000 of them are 125 days old or more," Lawrence says. "In some major cities, it's taking 300 days, even 600 days to get your claim taken care of."

The VA is updating its electronic medical software, and says delays are expected when moving from a paper system to one that is digital. But there is still the issue of moving medical information from military records to the VA's system.

"Despite a billion dollars that has been spent to get these two systems to unify, the Pentagon is still deciding to adopt the VA's software model," Lawrence says.

Tales of VA red tape range from the tragic to the comic, Lawrence says, citing one example where a double-amputee veteran was told his condition wasn't "chronic."

Criticism of VA secretary Shinseki's handling of the problem has come from both sides of the aisle, and some question whether his 2015 goal is even possible, Lawrence says.

"There's a strange conflict within the VA's mission," he says. "They're trying to get care to as many deserving veterans as possible, but the more successful they are at finding those veterans and signing them up, the bigger their backlog gets."

Trickling Progress

One of the people looking for those veterans is Tommy Sowers, the assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs at the VA. He says the battle the agency is fighting is not an easy one.

"Some of the decisions here have been tough decisions, but right decisions," Sowers says.

He says the VA has expanded access to veterans related to Agent Orange, who have waited four decades for justice. The agency did the same thing for PTSD, he says, and expanded the number of people being treated for military sexual trauma.

"This is a challenge [and] we're making tough decisions that make it possible for more people to apply for and receive benefits," he says.

The agency is actively addressing the paperwork issue, Sowers says, and is in the process of implementing a paperless system this year. He stresses it is decades of paperwork that has piled up, and that they are essentially transitioning from a 19th century system to a 21st century system.

"Six months ago, only about 3 percent of our claims were electronic; today, nationwide that's about 18 percent," he says. "The backlog today is less than it was a year ago ... and in the past two months we've seen the backlog reduce by about 50,000 claims. We're all impatient and we're all driven to fix this."

In the meantime, Sowers says the VA does take care of emergency health care, and 56 percent of vets have used it.


President Barack Obama
(Patrick Semansky/AP)
May 26, 2013

Stunned by Military Sex Scandals, Advocates Demand Changes

Female members of Congress push for legislation to strengthen military sex crime prosecution.

West Point alum Donna McAleer was at her Utah home last week when she got a call asking if she'd "seen the latest."

A male Army sergeant, a friend told her, had just been charged with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen female cadets at McAleer's alma mater.

Many of the women were naked; some images were taken in a bathroom at the U.S. Military Academy in New York. The revelations followed a rash of recent incidents, among them stunning reports that at least three ranking male officers overseeing military sexual assault prevention programs have themselves been charged in the past month with crimes ranging from sexual battery to stalking.

"How many of these stories are we going to hear?" asks McAleer, a field admissions officer for the academy. "I want to be able to, with confidence, encourage people — daughters and sons — to serve their country."

As the nation prepares to honor the war dead this Memorial Day weekend, a seeming epidemic of sexual assault and abuse reports has severely shaken that confidence.

A new Pentagon study estimates that 26,000 people in the Armed Forces were sexually assaulted last year. It's not entirely clear top brass understands the scope of the crisis: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh suggested in recent Senate testimony that the spike in reports of sexual assaults in the military could be blamed on the "hook up mentality" of the country's young people.

Welsh has since apologized, but not before fanning outrage that's been building on Capitol Hill and beyond over the military's long failure to repair a system that has placed service members, especially women, in more danger of sexual assault than battlefield injury.

"We have relied on the chain of command to deal with this issue, and the chain of command has failed for decades," says retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich. "America gives us their sons and daughters, and we've failed to discharge the responsibility to take care of them."

An Action Imperative

It's been more than two decades since the sexual-assault-and-hallway-grope-a-thon at the Navy's "Tailhook" aviators' convention in Las Vegas, which led to the resignation of the Navy secretary.

It's been a decade since the lid was blown off a rape and sexual assault scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where the school's top four officials were removed.

It's been a year since investigators at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio found evidence that a dozen instructors had engaged in "sexual misconduct," including rape, leading to the conviction of at least nine of them.

So it should come as no surprise that parents, with more and more frequency, are asking recruiters if their daughters, and sons, will be safe in the military — a question prompted not by roadside bombs, but assault statistics.

McAleer, the West Point recruiter and author of Porcelain on Steel, a collection of profiles of accomplished female academy graduates, says the answer is no, as long as the military continues to rely on its chain-of-command system to hear, investigate and prosecute assault claims from the ranks.

"It's delusional to think we can do this over and over and get a different result," she says, referring to statistics that show those in the chain of command are the perpetrators in a quarter of cases of alleged assault.

She, and others, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, argue that the military should create a separate legal process to deal with sexual assault claims.

Gillibrand, a Democrat, has sponsored legislation to do just that. A separate bill proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, would not require the new legal structure, which she argues the Pentagon would work to block.

Her legislation focuses on measures that would remove commanders' ability to overturn military sexual assault convictions, and require dismissal or a dishonorable discharge for service members found guilty of rape or sexual assault.

Similar legislation has also been proposed in the House, and, as in the Senate, is backed by members of both parties in efforts led by women.

Commanders' authority to overturn convictions came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed that Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reversed the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson and then reassigned him as safety chief at a base in Tucson, Ariz.

Wilkerson had been convicted of assaulting a civilian contractor while at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy.

McCaskill has held up the nomination of another top Air Force commander and former astronaut, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, to a NASA post because she overturned the aggravated sexual assault jury conviction of an Air Force captain whose victim was a female lieutenant.

Turning Point?

The military, like any organization, has long focused on protecting the institution. And it has relied on the traditional chain of command to deal with the sexual assault issue.

"No one wants to take bad news to their boss," said Laich, the retired major general who now works in a program at Ohio Dominican University to encourage veterans to use their college benefits.

"You have an institution that consciously or unconsciously has given the message that they don't want to hear that bad news," he says.

Advocates for change say that the bad news can no longer be easily hidden, however. Information networks, the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War about sexual abuse in the military, and the record number of women serving on congressional armed services committees, they argue, have put the issue before the public in a way never before seen.

"There are 230,000 women serving in the military. There's a documentary like The Invisible War. There are lawsuits, and there's a technology-driven global economy that allows information to be disseminated," says McAleer. "All of that coming together has brought this front and center."

Susan Burke, a Washington lawyer who represents service members, including those featured in the documentary, says several military assault cases are pending in civilian court.

She notes, however, that winning outside of the military justice system is "an uphill battle."

"Supreme Court jurisprudence is very protective of the military," she says. "The judiciary is reluctant to hear cases brought by service members."

Military Takes Action

In response to the crisis, the military has begun programs to reduce sexual assault crimes and provide victim support, and has taken steps to strengthen sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.

Last year, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, after seeing The Invisible War, required that sexual assaults be reported to a higher level commander; he also established special victims units in each branch of the military.

And the Obama administration recently held a bipartisan meeting of congressional women serving on the House and Senate armed services committees.

Having more women on the committees "has made a tremendous difference," says Tanya Biank, author of Undaunted: The Real Story of America's Servicewomen in Today's Military. "They are the ones who are leading the way and bringing it to attention on a national level."

Biank and others say they see sexual assault as an issue that compromises not only recruitment, but readiness and national security, particularly given the growing number of women in the military.

The fight to change the ways of the military, by altering through congressional action the Uniform Code of Military Justice, has really only just begun in earnest.

What Laich and other advocates say they want to see is the military expand its focus from prevention to aggressive prosecution.

"We may have to err on the side of being perhaps overly harsh with those who are found to be guilty of these kinds of infractions," he says. "There's a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator, and that has to be turned on its head."

"These aren't just social issues, these are real national security issues that affect our ability to man the force," Laich says. "When you have data that says a female service member in Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow service man than killed by the Taliban that tells you something about where we are on this issue."

Barack Obama
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
May 23, 2013

Obama to Limit Drone Strikes, Renew Effort to Close Guantanamo

President Obama on Thursday unveiled a major pivot in White House counter-terrorism policy, calling for a limiting of CIA drones strikes and a shift toward capturing rather than killing terrorist suspects.

Speaking at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the president said the death of Osama bin Laden and most of his top lieutenants meant and the fact that there had been no large-scale terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, meant that a new policy was in order.

"America is at a crossroads," he said. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison's warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"

"Today, the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat," the president said. "Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11."

"We must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," the president said.

Obama said that the U.S. operation in Pakistan against bin Laden "cannot be the norm."

"The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces – but also depended on some luck," he said.

Referring to the administration's decision to acknowledge for the first time that U.S. citizens, including senior al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki and three others, had been killed in drone strikes, he said he authorized the declassification of the information "to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims."

"For the record, 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. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil," he said.

The president said that he was "implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board which found unacceptable failures in Benghazi" and had asked Congress to full fund efforts to "bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence" at U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad.

Referring to the Justice Department's subpoena of journalists' phone records as part of a leak investigation, he said he was "troubled" that it could result in a chilling of investigative journalism.

"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs," he said. "Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach."

Obama said maintaining the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was both expensive and problematic.

"During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people –- almost $1 million per prisoner."

He said that as president, he had transferred 67 detainees from Guantanamo to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to prevent it.

"These restrictions make no sense," he said. "No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States — ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism-related offenses, including some who are more dangerous than most [Guantanamo] detainees."

Given his administration's "relentless pursuit" of al-Qaida's leadership, "there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened," he said to applause.

The applause was quickly followed by a protester, repeating "Close Guantanamo!"

"Ma'am, let me finish," the president said after the unidentified woman interrupted his speech for the second time. "Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but let me speak, too."

Update at 4:20 p.m. ET. ACLU: 'Encouraging And Noteworthy Actions'

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the president for "encouraging and noteworthy actions" regarding drone strikes and the transfer of Guantanamo detainees.

  • "Yet the president still claims broad authority to carry out target killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency," the statement said.
  • "We are particularly gratified that President Obama embraced our recommendations to use his authority to allow prompt transfer and release of Guantánamo detainees who pose no national security threat and have been cleared by the military and intelligence agencies," it said. "But there are other problems that must still be addressed. The unconstitutional military commissions must be shuttered, not brought to the United States."

Update at 3:20 p.m. ET. Female Protester Identified

The Associated Press identifies the woman who interrupted the president three times during his speech as Medea Benjamin from the anti-war group Code Pink.

As the AP writes:

  • "Obama said at one point he was willing to 'cut the young lady some slack' because the issues he was addressing are worth being passionate about.
  • "Benjamin shouted, quote, '86 were cleared already. Release them today!'
  • "That appears to be a reference to detainees who remain in Cuba despite being cleared for transfer from the facility."

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