In the evolving tactics of battling terrorists, drones -- unmanned, remotely controlled aircraft -- morphed from useful surveillance tools into uniquely effective weapons.
Al-Qaida and its associated groups proved a particularly elusive enemy for conventional war fighting. The insurgents traveled fast, in small groups, tried to blend with the population and when not on operations holed up in inaccessible areas.
Enter the armed drones. They were cheap. Because they were unmanned, no U.S. combatants were at risk. They could loiter over targets for long periods. And when they did hit a target, there was not the destructive collateral damage of a strike by manned aircraft. Drones quickly became the go-to weapon of choice for the Obama administration.
The drone strikes outraged the Pakistanis and their government, but they steadily decapitated the leadership of al-Qaida and its allies. Say this for the drones: They worked.
But in September 2011, the targeted killings crossed a line. In Yemen, the drones took out two U.S. citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both of them credibly alleged to be senior al-Qaida leaders. Two weeks later, a drone killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, a native-born American.
The killings raised obvious legal and moral issues. But only recently, when it became clear that the justification of the targeted killings pretty much came down to President Barack Obama's say-so, did they become the subject of serious congressional and public debate.
While some in Congress are fine with the existing drone program, others are not. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine objected to the president, "whoever he is," being prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, "all rolled into one." Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called it "very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen." There seems a growing consensus that the targeted drone killings should be subject to some oversight. Over the weekend, Robert Gates, a former Defense secretary who served under both Obama and George Bush, said he backs a proposal for a special court, like the secret court of federal judges that reviews surveillance and wiretap warrants in national security cases.
The drone is almost too easy a weapon. Its use should not go unmonitored.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.