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The Sudden and Unexpected Return of the Drone War

The drone war is back. Amid fears that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Yemen are plotting a major attack, U.S. drones reportedly launched three strikes in the country on Thursday alone, killing 12 suspected al Qaeda militants. In fact, the Obama administration is arguably waging its most intense drone campaign ever in Yemen, with nine suspected drone strikes in the last 13 days and six in the last three. The concentrated bombing is all the more striking considering that just days ago the State Department was shuttering nearly two dozen embassies around the world in response to what seemed an amorphous terrorist threat. 

The fierce campaign comes on the heels of the White House announcing a major overhaul of its use of drones. With his speech in May outlining a plan to take the United States off its "perpetual wartime footing," the president gave hope to critics of his surprisingly robust drone policy that the strikes would soon be curtailed. But according to Josh Begley, a web developer who tracks drone strikes and runs Dronestream, U.S. drones have struck five times in Pakistan and 11 times in Yemen since Obama's speech. Not since January -- when, during a five-day period, Washington carried out eight suspected strikes -- have U.S. missiles rained down on Yemen with such frequency. While three-strike days are not unprecedented in Yemen, they are far more common in Pakistan. According to Begley's analysis, there have been three likely instances in which U.S. drones struck Yemen three times in one day. In Pakistan, that has occurred 13 times.

The interactive map below, courtesy of Begley, shows strikes in Yemen before (yellow dots) and after (red dots) Obama's speech (the first U.S. drone strike in Yemen took place way back in 2002). Some dots below are obscured because of multiple strikes in the same location.

The flurry of strikes raises questions about the Obama administration's stated commitment to dial back its aggressive wartime tactics. In a major speech earlier this year, President Obama announced to much fanfare that he hoped to wind down the war on terror and that stricter guidelines would be put in place to govern the use of drone strikes, though those rules largely remain classified and unreleased. "America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat," Obama said. "And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set." In a letter to Congress in May, Attorney General Eric Holder hinted at this new, stricter policy. "When capture is not feasible, the policy provides that lethal force may be used only when a terrorist target poses a continuing, imminent threat to Americans, and when certain other preconditions, including a requirement that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat, are satisfied."

What those "other preconditions" amount to remains shrouded in mystery. But as articulated in the letter, the administration's new critieria for drone strikes turn on the presence of a "continuing, imminent threat" directed at Americans. Administration officials explain that the prior guidance allowed drone strikes against groups or individuals threatening "U.S. interests" whereas the new policy tightens that guideline to require "U.S. persons" to be threatened by those targeted by drones.

This time around, the U.S. government has been making an elaborate, dramatic argument that the latest threat out of Yemen poses imminent danger to Americans. The administration's decision to close and evacuate a slew of diplomatic posts served as a highly visible signal of the perceived seriousness of this threat -- and, most importantly, its implications for U.S. persons. While Obama's speech in May and subsequent policy guidance has been interpreted as an effort by the president to avoid having his legacy defined by the aggressive use of drones, the address itself was notable for its defense of the administration's tactics, which Obama argued have not only undermined terrorist groups but also saved civilian lives. That conviction has been on manifest display in the administration's response this week to the threat emanating from Yemen.

Beyond vague hints, apocalyptic warnings, and bizarre leaks, however, U.S. officials have released little information about the nature of that threat. As a result, it remains difficult to evaluate Obama's commitment to his new policy. "There has been an awful lot of chatter out there. Chatter means conversation about terrorists, about the planning that's going on, very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican, said on NBC's Meet the Press. Later in the week, administration officials revealed that the source of the warning came from an intercepted communication between the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the chief of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Given the murky nature of the threat, it remains unclear whether, in repeatedly striking targets in Yemen in recent days, the Obama administration is ramping up the pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in general or simply responding to a specific intelligence threat. The White House's secret legal guidelines would appear to require that the strikes be tied to a specific threat to U.S. persons, but that's a legal standard for which there is no outside oversight or determination. If the U.S. government wants to up the pressure and return to the 2009-2010 heyday of the decade-long drone war, there is nothing stopping it.

Meanwhile, for observers of the U.S. national security establishment, the strikes in Yemen upset a commonly accepted wisdom in Washington: that the accession of John Brennan as CIA director heralded the end of aggressive drone strikes. Brennan reportedly favors moving the drone program from the the CIA to the Pentagon, where it will theoretically be subject to greater oversight and transparency. With the transfer of the program, it was also thought that drone strikes would gradually decrease as they moved out of the shadowy world of the CIA and into the, comparatively speaking, more open world of the Defense Department.

But events this week in Yemen represent a profound challenge to that line of thinking. And until the White House offers a clear explanation for how it is targeting terrorists and why, prickly questions about the administration's commitment to dialing back the war on terror are likely to persist.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/GettyImages

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