Since taking over the war on terror, President Barack Obama has not only continued using unmanned drones, he has made them an even more important part of the arsenal.
The remote-controlled weapons have been very successful in killing top al-Qaida leaders. In recent years, the target list has expanded to lower-level militants, including some who weren't directly threatening U.S. forces. The geography of the deadly strikes has grown beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, to Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Last year, a CIA drone assassinated a radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen but deemed to be an enemy combatant.
All this time, the Obama administration has not come up with specific rules for deploying the drones. It accelerated the drafting of formal standards and procedures just before the Nov. 6 election, in case Obama lost, reports the New York Times in an article that was published in The Bee on Sunday.
This review is long overdue. Just because Obama won should not slow its momentum. The rules are no less important for his second term than they would have been to help guide Mitt Romney in his first.
Obama ended torture, "extraordinary renditions" and other of the most objectionable practices on President George W. Bush's watch. But to the dismay of civil liberties groups and many in his own party, he embraced the drone strikes.
Since Obama took office, nearly 300 attacks have killed an estimated 2,500 people, including some civilians. The CIA and the military have about 7,000 drones, up from only 50 a decade ago. It's a nearly $5 billion-a-year program.
It is only through intrepid reporting, however, that Americans know that there is apparently a "kill list" of potential targets compiled by a secret panel, and that there was a legal memo drafted to justify al-Awlaki's killing.
In some ways, it's understandable why the drones seem like a good option in this unconventional war. U.S. forces can act more quickly. Americans aren't put in harm's way. If the intelligence is solid, fewer civilians are put at risk.
Yet the widespread use of drones comes at a cost to our moral, legal and strategic standing in the world.
Many countries, including close allies, say that the drone strikes violate international law. As other nations including potential adversaries develop their own armed drones, we will hardly be able to insist on ground rules if we don't follow any. The further we get from the horrors of Sept. 11 and from the terrorists behind the attack, the more difficult it is to justify the strikes. It's also clear that they fuel anger at America, making the hard work of diplomacy that much harder.
There is disagreement within the administration, the Times reports, with officials at the State and Justice departments and top counterterrorism advisers arguing for drone strikes as a last resort, and the Defense Department and CIA favoring more flexibility in their use.
The president and his team have failed to clearly lay out the case to the American public for when these drone strikes are necessary and in the country's best interests.
A specific rule book is a necessary start, but only a start. If this is how we're going to fight the war on terror, there needs to be far more accountability and far less secrecy, including greater oversight by our elected representatives in Congress.