WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Barack Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.
The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the CIA and the military since Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.
Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.
Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the CIA continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.
Since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with al-Qaida and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.
The U.N. plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate U.S. drone strikes.