WASHINGTON // The United States will have to keep up an open-ended drone war against Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan and elsewhere to prevent another terror attack on America, defence secretary Leon Panetta says, but the use of drones for assassinations is facing mounting scrutiny on moral and legal grounds from critics demanding more transparency on the secretive programme.
The increased focus reflects a widening unease that the 400-plus drone strikes carried out by the United States in the past dozen years - resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths - have ushered in a more dangerous type of warfare unregulated by existing international conventions on armed conflict.
"Part of what's going on here is that we're in the early stages of a real technological revolution and the rules of the road haven't been written yet," said Richard Whittle, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars who is writing a book about the Predator, the US military's best-known armed drone. "The technology has moved faster than our legal and political system."
US officials claim that drone strikes, which have been primarily in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, are conducted according to strict procedures grounded in international law, and that great efforts are made to avoid civilian deaths. The administration says the number of victims is lower than 3,000.
But watchdog groups on human rights and civil liberties, as well as a number of foreign-policy analysts, increasingly say these vague assertions are not enough.
"Basically, their statement on this is sort of 'trust us, we're doing this legally and constitutionally'," Mr Whittle said. "But I don't think that's good enough ... We need to be sure that our government has not only clear but constitutional policies for how it uses drones in targeted killing and right now nobody outside the administration can know that, including members of Congress … It's like [President Ronald] Reagan said, 'Trust but verify' ... I think in a democracy we have a right to that."
The former US director of national intelligence, Adm Dennis C Blair, agrees. In a teleconference with journalists on the US drone programme on January 22, Adm Blair called for more transparency on how strikes are conducted, adding that "there's been far too little debate" about the issue. "We want our people to know how we use military force and that we do it in ... ways that the United States ... can be proud of and that can be effective."
The drone programme has had vocal critics since it began soon after September 11 when, according to Mr Whittle, Predator Hellfire missiles were aimed at Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Moral and legal concerns aside, critics have denounced drone attacks on pragmatic grounds, saying that they create more militants than they kill because of the anger and resentment generated among foreign populations, especially when civilians are killed.
Lately, the drone programme has drawn renewed criticism among foreign officials. In a mid-January visit to Dubai, Yemen's human-rights minister Hooria Mashhour voiced concern about innocent people being killed in strikes. The same day, Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, called US drone attacks a violation of her country's territorial integrity, the Dawn newspaper reported.
Significantly, last month two influential US think tanks took aim at the administration's drone policies, and a United Nations human-rights rapporteur gave details of his investigation into attacks that have killed civilians.
The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations released a 53-page report, "Reforming US Drone Strike Policies", that called for congressional oversight of the programme, the issuing of clear legal principles and norms to govern attacks, and discussions "with emerging drone powers" on "how armed drones should be used outside a state's territory".
Current US policies are "unsustainable," the report said. "Without reform from within, drones risk becoming an unregulated, unaccountable vehicle for states to deploy lethal force with impunity."
The report's author, Micah Zenko, also urged an end to controversial "signature strikes" that kill supposed militants based on what they are observed doing and whose company they keep. Instead, he wrote, attacks should be limited to identified "leaders of transnational terrorist organisations and individuals with direct involvement in past or continuing plots against the United States and its allies".
Mr Zenko noted that of the estimated 3,000 killed by drones, the vast majority "were low-level, anonymous suspected militants who were predominantly engaged in insurgent or terrorist operations against their governments, rather than in active international terrorist plots."
According to the New America Foundation public-policy institute in Washington, there have been 337 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Basing its figures on "reliable news reports" it says these strikes killed between 1,953 and 3,279 people, of whom between 1,526 and 2,649 were militants. Strikes in Pakistan dropped to 48 last year from a peak of 122 in 2010, it added.
Also last month, Peter W Singer and Thomas Wright of the Washington-based Brookings Institution issued an open letter calling on the US president to delineate an "Obama Doctrine" on the use of new weapons such as drones and to announce it in a major speech.
"President Obama now has an opportunity - and maybe even an obligation - to outline a doctrine that lays out criteria by which the United States will develop, deploy and use these weapons," Mr Singer wrote. "The goal should be to establish a framework for how the United States believes the evolution of these revolutionary new technologies should proceed."
Such a framework is increasingly urgent as more countries develop the technology to deploy armed drones, say analysts such as Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Without such a consensus, Mr Nawaz asked in an interview, "what would the US position be ... if some other country chooses to go across borders attacking US forces or attacking a third country?"
The UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson revealed on January 24 that his investigation would examine "the civilian effect, and human rights implications" of drone strikes. He said the investigation was in response "to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing".
Most analysts doubt the UN will get much cooperation from Barack Obama's administration or that its findings will have a tangible effect. "I'm not sure it's going to go very far, very fast," Mr Nawaz said. But such international scrutiny, he added, "is the danger the United States is facing if it is seen as the only power using drones unilaterally without legal international cover".
Mr Whittle called the UN probe "symbolic of the fact that people overseas are very unhappy with the US exercising what seems to be unbridled power to kill people".
Amid the criticism, the Obama administration recently concluded a major review of its counterterrorism policies, including drone strikes, that will soon be submitted to the president, according to the Washington Post. However, this so-called "playbook" will not apply to the CIA-run drone campaign in Pakistan for the time being.
"If the United States decides not to apply the [new guidelines] to Pakistan, it's essentially meaningless," Mr Zenko said in the January 22 teleconference he gave with Adm Blair, "because 85 per cent of all the targeted killings that the US has conducted in non-battlefield settings since September 11 have occurred in Pakistan."
Mr Nawaz added: "If Pakistan is exempt ... then potentially you have a problem there because, at least recently, the government of Pakistan, after years of condoning or acquiescing or even participating in drone strikes … is now publicly and formally saying they do not want these operations in their territory."
It is not clear if the administration plans to release an unclassified version of the "playbook", which Adm Blair said would be necessary to "reassure the American people ... that their government is doing the right thing."
More public scrutiny of the programme is likely this week when John O Brennan, Mr Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, principal author of the new guidelines, and the president's nominee to head the CIA, appears on February 7 for his confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.