Predator Drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and sometimes killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies including, in at least a few cases, its own citizens.
The Obama administration has argued that the drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its allies are lawful as part of the military action authorized by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as well as under the general principle of self-defense. By those rules, such targeted killing is not assassination, which is banned by executive order.
The Pentagon now has about 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago, and asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones in the 2012 budget.
Drones have become crucial in fighting terrorism. The C.I.A. spied on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan by video transmitted from a drone. One of Pakistan’s most wanted militants, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reported dead in a June 2011 C.I.A. drone strike, part of an aggressive drone campaign that administration officials say has helped paralyze Al Qaeda in the region. More than 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been killed by American drones since 2006, according to the Web site longwarjournal.com, which closely tracks the strikes as part of its focus on the war on terror.
In September 2011, a drone missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric, using live video on Yemeni tribal turf where it is too dangerous for American troops to go. It was another sign that, disillusioned by huge costs and uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone as the future of the fight against terrorist networks.
President Obama authorized the use of drones early in the NATO-led air campaign against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. In October 2011, an American Predator drone and a French warplane hit two vehicles in a convoy fleeing his hometown of Surt. Though neither vehicle carried Colonel Qaddafi, the rest of the convoy detoured and scattered; Mr. Qaddafi was soon caught by rebels and killed.
Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy
Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term in 2012, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.
The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the C.I.A. and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.
Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.