So, Who Can We Kill?

A bipartisan revolt from the right and left puts Obama and his drone war on the defensive

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Sean Hemmerle

Budget politics was topic a when President Obama met privately with Democratic Senators on Capitol Hill on March 12. But some of the President's hosts were determined to raise another issue: drones. Why, Senator Jay Rockefeller asked, was the White House refusing to show Congress legal memos justifying its drone campaign, including the killing of U.S. citizens overseas? Three Democratic Senators had been disturbed enough by the secrecy to cast protest votes against the confirmation of Obama's new CIA director, John Brennan. Another Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, even joined Republican Senator Rand Paul's epic 13-hour filibuster the week before, in which Paul demanded--and later received--an assurance that Obama would not use drones to kill noncombatant Americans on U.S. soil. According to Politico, it was enough to make Obama defend himself in bracing terms. "This is not Dick Cheney we're talking about here," he pleaded.

But in political terms, it's getting hard to tell the difference. During the 2012 campaign, Obama's use of drones to kill terrorists without risking the lives of U.S. troops was a bragging point. But in the months since, his drone war has turned from asset to headache. Paul's filibuster, which ignited Twitter and made Paul a celebrity at this month's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), was just the crescendo of a growing chorus of complaints that have united left and right. (After his filibuster, Paul was given chocolates and flowers and serenaded by the left-wing antiwar group Code Pink.) Speaking at Fordham University on March 18, Jeh Johnson, who stepped down in December as the Pentagon's chief counsel, warned that Obama's targeted-killing program risks "an erosion of support."

Now Washington is rethinking some of its basic assumptions about the drone war. Congress and the White House are discussing ways to bring new legal clarity to targeted killing. And Obama, moved by the complaints about secrecy, is said to be planning public remarks on the subject soon. "I do think the Administration is feeling some anxiety about this," says Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official under Obama. "Over the last year, the shift in discourse on targeted killings has had an impact on some of the more thoughtful people in the Administration."

A War in the Shadows

"A decade of war is now ending," Obama declared in his January Inaugural Address. The line referred to the U.S.'s departure from Iraq and Afghanistan. But a different sort of war carries on. The same day Obama spoke, a drone-launched Hellfire missile killed three suspected militants in Yemen. It was the third such strike in three days. In 2012, U.S. drones launched 48 known strikes in Pakistan and dozens more in Yemen and Somalia. And while American troops may be tearing down outposts in Afghanistan, the U.S. has recently opened or enlarged drone bases in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Niger. The last of those has supported French forces who stormed Mali in January to drive out Islamists there--meaning that Obama has extended the fight against al-Qaeda all the way to Timbuktu.

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