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Hundreds of people have been killed in American drone strikes since the first attack in Yemen in November 2002. Hundreds, of whom an unclear number were civilians and an unclear number were terror suspects. Consider this: when the United States needed to be absolutely certain of the identity of its target, it sent SEAL Team Six into Abbottabad. As articulated by Mark Bowden in the cover story of the new The Atlantic, this is one of the numerous contradictions at the heart of the United States' drone program — a program that may be radically changed before President Obama leaves office.

Here's another contradiction. A drone is a simple device — a glider with an engine, a camera, and an armament — that's part of one of the most sophisticated intelligence networks in history. It's used to watch suspects in remarkable detail before killing them to prevent attacks on American interests — if, that is, the information we had that indicated they were terrorists was accurate. Drones are controlled by 19-year-olds with joysticks, who watch their targets in unexpectedly high-resolution on computer monitors, warfare games played in cheat mode, in which there's no chance that your opponent can match your firepower. That's in part why the Department of Defense revoked its plan to award medals to drone operators; doing so seemed a little like giving a victory trophy to the Harlem Globetrotters. This is not meant to diminish the serious legal and ethical ramifications that Bowden outlines, merely to highlight the absurdity. America somewhat accidentally stumbled onto one of the most effective weapons in military history, and we haven't yet figured out the most effective way to use it. 

Drone operators watch huge swaths of territory or they single out individual faces, tracking them for weeks, watching their daily habits before the order is given to press a different button and unleash a Hellfire. How that order is given has evolved. At the height of the United States' drone operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president would each week review the kill list, a selected group of targets within strike capability. As the drones evolved, that list grew. Bowden writes:

As U.S. intelligence analysis improved, the number of targets proliferated. Even some of the program’s supporters feared it was growing out of control. The definition of a legitimate target and the methods employed to track such a target were increasingly suspect.

The U.S. began striking so frequently (and effectively) that the core of Al Qaeda was hobbled, leaving the organization to grow out of the seeds kicked up by the blasts. As the strikes continued, the program met increasing resistance: from a deputy director at the CIA, from counsel at the State Department, even from the ambassador to Pakistan. At one point, Ambassador Cameron Munter used a conference call to challenge the right of the CIA to order strikes in that country at all.

[Munter argued that] no American policy should be carried out in any country without the ambassador’s approval.

Taken aback, Panetta replied, “Well, I do not work for you, buddy.”

“I don’t work for you,” Munter told him.

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped in: “Leon, you are wrong.”

Panetta said, flatly, “Hillary, you’re wrong.”

Obama agreed with Panetta. But Munter eventually won the fight.

America's drone war was never sustainable, as Bowden reports. It is predicated on the nebulous state of war between the United States and terror organizations, a state that one International Court of Justice judge declared to be "distorting the law." If we are at war, we can target combatants. As we start to win that conflict — as we have been, segmenting and dismantling the core of Al Qaeda — our ability to maintain international and domestic legal authority for those strikes weakens. "A hypothetical," Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, suggests to Bowden, "the Taliban is part of the AUMF now, but we could find ourselves not in hostilities with the Taliban after 2014." As Bowden writes, "In that case, the military authority to attack Taliban targets, which account for many drone strikes and most signature strikes, would be gone." U.S. operations would be constrained by international law that gives criminal suspects the right to surrender instead of being killed unawares of the drone circling them in the sky. In other words, there would be a lot more raids like the one in Abbottabad.

Which leaves President Obama in the politically and legally difficult situation that he outlined during his speech in May. The president offered some ways in which to add external review to the use of drones in military operations — a shift necessitated not only due to public pressure but also because, once we're not at war with an opponent, how and when we use the remote aircraft will have to become much more judicious.

The final irony is that drones, in Bowden's words, "might be the more moral choice." When it comes to stopping terrorist suspects, the bin Laden raid was a well-funded, deeply planned exception. (Even it, with one non-combatant fatality, had a civilian death rate higher than even the most skeptical drone strike data.) We can't always assure minimized casualties in the way that a teenager negotiating a drone from an office park in the Midwest can, waiting until the target he's been watching gets into a car headed down an empty highway. And Bowden should know. He wrote the book Black Hawk Down about the 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia. Targeting two men for capture, U.S. Special Forces ended up killing hundreds of people in the city during the botched operation. Drones hadn't yet been invented.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.