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A new AUMF would clarify, both legally and politically, whom we should be killing and why. It might also help reassure other nations that the U.S. has some sense of limits. Legal debates aside, a big practical problem with the drone war is that the rest of the world hates it. Drone strikes and the unintended deaths of innocents they sometimes cause have fanned severe anti-Americanism in places like Pakistan. (One would-be terrorist, Faisal Shahzad, who was plotting to bomb New York City in 2010, even cited U.S. drone strikes as a motivator.) A 2012 Pew Research Center poll of international opinion found that American drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world, not only in Muslim countries but also in such nations as Germany, Russia, Japan and China. "We're losing the argument," Harman says. In January, a U.N. special investigator from Britain kicked off a nine-month official inquiry into U.S. drone strikes to determine "whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing."
In the U.S., Obama's biggest political problem may be secrecy. By treating the drone campaign as a state secret, the White House has invited broad suspicion and paranoid scenarios, like the casual killing of Americans at home. It was only last year that Obama publicly acknowledged the program's existence, and on March 15 a federal appeals court rebuked the CIA for not admitting its own role in it. (The CIA operates its own drone fleet--independent of the Pentagon's--which mostly targets suspected militants in Pakistan.) In January, another federal judge ruled that the White House could invoke unspecified national-security reasons to withhold opinions on targeted killing written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. But the clearly frustrated judge lamented the "Alice in Wonderland" nature of the situation. "The Obama Administration is wrong to withhold these documents from Congress and the American people," former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta wrote in a March 13 Washington Post op-ed. "Give them up, Mr. President."
Kill Lists and Drone Courts
Last spring, the New York Times published a front-page story detailing Obama's role in his drone war. Obama would often personally approve names of terrorism suspects added to a "kill list" compiled by officials from various agencies. The strikes are then carried out by drones operated by the military. (The CIA generally makes its own targeted-killing decisions.)
The story, with which several top officials cooperated, revealed the depth of Obama's involvement in a vigorous fight against terrorists. It seemed like a convenient election-year narrative, but it may have backfired. Top aides soon became uncomfortable about commentary describing the President as a kind of imperial executioner. Some of them, including Brennan and new White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, formerly a top national-security staffer, had already been wrangling at length with the legal, moral and practical implications of the drone war. That was one reason Brennan led a multiagency effort in 2012 to compile standards and procedures for drone strikes into a formal rule book, which he dubbed the "playbook," according to the Washington Post.