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First Thoughts: Obama to scale back drone policy

Obama to scale back his administration’s drone policy… Also expected in his 2:00 pm ET national security speech: better securing diplomatic facilities and stating his desire to close Gitmo… About that Holder letter… WaPo on the White House trying to shield Obama from IRS investigation… Cruz: “I don’t trust the Republicans”… Scott Walker heads to the Hawkeye State… And Happy (upcoming) Memorial Day weekend.

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a concert honoring singer-songwriter Carole King with the 2013 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the White House on May 22, 2013.

*** Obama to scale back drone policy: In his first major national security speech of his second term, President Obama today is expected to both defend -- but also announce changes to -- his administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists and foreign enemies. “A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia,” the New York Times reports. “The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists” -- i.e., force can be used against targets who are 1) an imminent threat against Americans, and 2) cannot be feasibly captured. The Times also says that the Obama administration will shift control of drone strikes from the CIA to the U.S. military. “The significance is the Pentagon will now control the drone program, which increases transparency both for Congress and the American people,” NBC terrorism analyst Roger Cressey said on “TODAY” this morning.

*** What’s also expected in the speech: A White House official, per NBC’s Shawna Thomas, says that the president’s speech also will discuss better securing U.S. diplomatic facilities (after the 2012 Benghazi attack), balancing security while protecting civil liberties at home (see the leak investigations), and stating his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay prison (an action which Congress opposes). Don’t be surprised if Obama says something along the lines of, “We will never send another detainee to Gitmo” as a way to express his willingness to close the facility. And don’t be surprised if he addresses -- head on -- the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ phone records in its prosecution of national security leaks. Obama delivers his remarks at 2:00 pm ET at the National Defense University in DC.

*** About that Holder letter: Obama’s remarks come a day after Attorney General Eric Holder released a letter acknowledging -- for the first time by the administration -- that four American citizens were killed in U.S. drone strikes. NBC’s Pete Williams says the letter discloses what had been widely reported and known: that three citizens were killed in counter-terrorism operations, including Anwar al Awlaki. The letter also gives the legal justification for those drone strikes. And finally, Williams adds, it discloses the death of an additional U.S. citizen, Jude Kenan Mohammed, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in North Carolina for taking part in a plot to stage a terror attack against US military targets. Speaking of drones, the Feb. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll found that 64% of Americans favored using them to target suspected members of Al Qaeda and other terrorists, while 12% opposed and another 22% didn’t have an opinion. And in a separate question, 42% said the program should be continued, and 28% said it should be changed or modified.

*** The Shield: Turning from national security to the domestic/political controversies hitting the Obama administration, the Washington Post notes what we did yesterday about the IRS story -- that the White House’s top goal was to ensure that Obama had nothing to do with it. “This account of how the White House tried to deal with the IRS inquiry … shows how carefully Obama’s top aides were trying to shield him from any second-term scandal that might swamp his agenda or, worse, jeopardize his presidency.” The Post story also reveals that the White House brought in many of the old hands to manage the P.R. relating to the inspector general’s report. “Late last week, [White House Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough summoned Plouffe and a cadre of former Obama and Clinton advisers — including Stephanie Cutter, Robert Gibbs, Anita Dunn, Paul Begala and Mike McCurry — to the White House for two separate public relations strategy sessions. White House aides said they urged getting out information about the IRS situation as quickly as possible, and provided advice on refocusing attention on Obama’s jobs agenda.”

*** Cruz: “I don’t trust the Republicans”: Here’s something you don’t see every day: A U.S. senator announcing, on the Senate floor, that he doesn’t trust his own party. Of course, in his first few months in office, Ted Cruz isn’t your average senator. “The senior senator from Arizona urged this body to trust the Republicans,” Cruz said, per Politico referring to Sen. John McCain in the debate over whether to go to conference in the budget negotiations. “Let me be clear, I don’t trust the Republicans. I don’t trust the Democrats and I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans or the Democrats because it is leadership in both parties that has got us into this mess.”

*** Scott Walker heads to the Hawkeye State: Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker today travels to Iowa, where he addresses the Polk County, IA GOP dinner that begins at 7:00 pm ET. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Walker could very well be the most significant 2016er on the GOP side that no one is talking about right now. There is A LOT of room for a presidential candidate who hails from outside of Washington.

*** State shopping isn’t the best policy for success: Don’t miss the piece on the “Daily Rundown” site about how politicians who run for office in one state and then another usually don’t have that much success.

*** Happy Memorial Day: Lastly, to get an early start on the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, your morning First Read note won’t be publishing on Friday. We’ll return on Tuesday. Happy Memorial Day!!!

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