Drone Worrier

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SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesdays, President Obama and his national-security team put together a "kill list" of suspected terrorists the CIA or U.S. military can target.

On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War – as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops streamed toward Iraq-occupied Kuwait – a U.S. Army officer remarked how much easier all this would be if someone – a Saddam Hussein turncoat, perhaps, or an American spy – put a bullet in the back of the Iraqi dictator’s head.

It didn’t happen, of course, and it took two full wars before Hussein met his fate at the end of a hangman’s rope. And while the analogy is not perfect, President Obama’s stepped up campaign of drones strikes and “kill lists” is trying to do the same thing: nip troublemakers in the bud, before they can invade U.S. allies or kill Americans.

Call it the legacy of terror, where national armies – easily monitored, easily targeted – have often been replaced by small groups of individuals, far tougher to track but retaining the capacity to do great damage.

It’s simplistic, but true: Congress doesn’t want to be engaged in the messy business of declaring war. Besides, terrorists can be fleeting targets where consultation between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is impractical. The public has grown tired of tending to the national-security garden.

(MORE: An Inside Look at the U.S.-Pakistan Feud Over Drones)

The horror of 9/11 is seared into Obama’s political DNA. He has ramped up the CIA and Pentagon’s worldwide campaign of drones strikes because he can, and because — at least in the tactical, short-term sense — it works. One of the greatest fears of any President is that “another 9/11” will happen on his or her watch. “We’re kind of at a turning point in the United States as we come to the end of 10 years of war,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday in Vietnam. “We are clearly doing a great job at going after al Qaeda and their leadership and making clear that they will never again be able to put together the kind of plan that they were involved with when they attacked on 9/11.”

That’s why every Tuesday, Obama – like some kid fanning out his baseball cards – shuffles through his Pentagon-provided deck of photos and short descriptions of suspected terrorists, selecting who will live and who will die. David Sanger of the New York Times detailed this strange weekly ritual last week, a part of his new book — Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power – scheduled to hit bookstores Tuesday.

The tale is already generating ire. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, praised Obama’s lethality, but pondered what intelligence is being lost in such Oval Office-ordered offings. “We do kill terror operatives, an important part of the war on terror, but we gratuitously forfeit potentially life-saving intelligence,” Krauthammer concludes. “But that will cost us later. For now, we are to bask in the moral seriousness and cool purpose of our drone warrior president.”

The Post reported Sunday that there is an expanding definition of terror targets inside Yemen, moving deeper into the ranks of suspected terrorists. “In more than 20 U.S. airstrikes over a span of five months, three `high-value’ terrorism targets have been killed, U.S. officials said,” reporter Greg Miller wrote. “A growing number of attacks have been aimed at lower-level figures who are suspected of having links to terrorism operatives but are seen mainly as leaders of factions focused on gaining territory in Yemen’s internal struggle.”

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No one – at least no one with any chance of living in the White House in the foreseeable future – wants to find out precisely how the U.S. public would react to a second 9/11. So Obama is – under the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force – methodically whittling away at those who would do American harm — as well as those the CIA and President believe might do the nation harm. 9/11 showed that suicidal zealots, no matter where they are today, can attack the U.S. tomorrow. That broadens the President’s rifle scope to include the entire world.

It’s a slippery slope.

The clandestine war continues. On Sunday, Pakistani officials said U.S. drones fired a volley of four missiles at a village in South Waziristan, killing 10 suspected insurgents. Thank God the Pakistanis detailed the attack: such strikes have been underway for the better part of a decade in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and are essentially secret wars being waged for the American public’s benefit — albeit without their knowledge or consent.

There will be new fronts: Timbuktu, that West African town on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert — that for generations has meant in the middle of nowhere — has been taken over by Islamic militants waging war against the government of Mali. Since April, women have had to wear veils in public, and alcohol, music and cigarettes are banned. Black flags honoring the new Islamic radicals flutter around town. U.S. drones are likely to follow.

MORE: Picking Up a Cold Trail: President Obama’s Search for bin Laden