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The Administration says it's simply meeting the threat. Yes, Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and al-Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan probably can't carry out "complex, large-scale attacks in the West," National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned Congress on March 12, but its offspring pose a deadly threat. Al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch, which has nearly hit the U.S. more than once, still aspires to do so. And al-Qaeda fighters in northern Africa, under the rubric of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, may want to pull off attacks on Western targets in the region similar to the deadly September assault on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. "Absent more effective and sustained activities to disrupt them, some regional affiliates--particularly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabab in Somalia--probably will grow stronger," Clapper warned.
Those activities probably include drone strikes. But one reason Obama's drone campaign is under pressure is that it is increasingly straining against its legal authority. The legal basis for Obama's targeted-killing operations (which can also involve strikes from manned airplanes, among other tactics) is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a law passed by Congress three days after 9/11. The AUMF was as broad in meaning as it was concise in language--a 395-word measure whose key passage empowered the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the Sept. 11 attacks.
For years, only a handful of critics questioned whether the drone campaign begun by George W. Bush and Cheney and accelerated by Obama was operating outside the law. Now members of Congress and legal scholars are asking whether it makes sense for U.S. counterterrorism policy to be guided by language hastily drafted as the wreckage of the World Trade Center still burned. "I believe most everybody thought--certainly I thought--it was limited in time and space," says Jane Harman, a former Democratic Congresswoman from California with expertise in intelligence issues. "I never imagined it would be around 12 years later." In a speech last year, Johnson warned that the law "should not be interpreted to mean ... that we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want."
But sometimes that's how it looks. In recent years, Administration lawyers have decreed that international law permits the U.S. to target "associated forces" of al-Qaeda. That has allowed for strikes against a broad range of individuals, most of whom have no real connection to the Sept. 11 attacks and may not even openly threaten the U.S. In some cases, U.S. drone strikes have targeted militants in Pakistan and Yemen who mainly threatened the governments of those countries. As Brooks puts it, "The enemy is inchoate and expanding ... We've gotten further and further from any sense of what, exactly, is the threat."