May 29, 2012 — -- President Obama is running for a second term as a commander-in-chief who has ended one war and is bringing another swiftly to a close. Left unmentioned, however, is the war he's quietly escalating with an army of aerial drones.
The largely clandestine effort, profiled in a New York Times report and a forthcoming book by Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman, highlights a remarkable transformation for a man who campaigned four years ago as an anti-war Senator, former law professor and defender of Constitutional due process. He pushed for an end to the use of torture on terror suspects, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay military prison, and for trying detainees in federal courts. For those efforts he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet over the past three and a half years, Obama has sat quietly "at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical," according to the Times. He personally vetted names on a "kill list" of targets, authorizing dozens of drone strikes even in cases with only vague and inconclusive evidence about who's really on the ground, according to the report. Neither the evidence against the suspects nor the suspects' identities is available for public scrutiny.
The mission, described as highly nuanced and complex, reportedly weighs heavily on Obama, who has grappled with the moral and legal implications of making a decision to kill. "He would squirm. He didn't like the idea of 'kill 'em and sort it out later,'" one source close to Obama told Klaidman.
But the president ultimately appears to have reconciled his principles with a form of pragmatism in fighting what is an unconventional war. He often "approves lethal action without hand-wringing," the Times writes.
Since January 2009, the U.S. has launched at least 281 drone strikes in Pakistan alone, according to the New America Foundation, which has tracked them based on news reports and other sources. During the last five years of George W. Bush's presidency -- 2004-2008 -- the group counted just 49. The government has not put out its own totals, which are also said to include strikes in Yemen and Somalia, other known havens for suspected terrorists.
As a result of the calls Obama has made, hundreds of militants are now dead. But there have also been civilian casualties, cases which have enflamed relations between the U.S. and the targeted countries.
While exact numbers are difficult to confirm, NAF estimates at least 1299 militants have been killed in drone strikes since 2009. At least 153 civilians were also reported victims, with some estimates ranging far higher.
White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said last month -- for the first time publicly confirming the existence of the drone operations -- that the strikes have "surgical precision" and that civilian casualties are "exceedingly rare."
"In full accordance with the law -- and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives -- the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones," he said in speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C.
Times: All Military-Age Males in Strike Zone Are 'Militants'
But the Times reports some of those strikes are made without positive, concrete confirmation of the identities of those in the strike zone. These so-called "signature strikes" hit targets based on evidence of suspicious behavior. Who is on the ground at the time is often unknown.
According to the Times, the method "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."
Human rights advocates called the approach alarming, making it difficult to determine whether and how many noncombatants might have been killed. The policy, they say, highlights the lack of transparency and accountability for the administration's secret drone program.
"Americans were disturbed when information came to light about a secret policy of torture. And we should be even more disturbed about a secret policy of killing," Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the ACLU, told ABC News.
"There's something very wrong with a program that assumes guilt by association as permissible basis for killing," said Shamsi.
Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, tells ABC News: "The most troubling part of the report for me is the idea that the only way an innocent person is counted as an innocent victim is if -- posthumously -- they manage to make their case. It's a little hard to do that.
"We have official government statements that hardly anyone was the erroneous victim of a drone strike, with private calculations in the hundreds if not thousands. The number probably falls somewhere in the middle," she said. "But we will never know for sure."
Both groups have protested the CIA's secret drone program calling it unlawful and dangerous, and saying it unduly imperils innocent lives and the security of the U.S. Some say it sets a precedent that other countries like China or Russia might cite in targeting their own alleged enemies of the state.
"As the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks, but in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed," wrote Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence in a New York Times op-ed late last year. "Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk for our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops."
But top Obama administration officials believe the strikes are an effective way to keep Americans safe at home, a top priority no matter the cost.
"I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC News' "This Week."
Carney: Obama Seeks to 'Avoid Civilian Casualties'
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama takes his responsibility to protect U.S. citizens "enormously seriously and that is why he has pursued the fight against al Qaeda in the very direct way that he has."
"He also believes very strongly in the need to avoid civilian casualties in the pursuit of that objective, in the pursuit of al Qaeda," said Carney, "and goes to extraordinary measures in order to achieve that and, again, has at his disposal -- this administration does -- tools that allow for the kind of precision that in the past was not available," he said.
Americans have been largely supportive of the drone effort. In the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll on the subject, 83 percent of Americans approved of the use of unmanned drones against terrorist suspects. Sixty-five percent approved of their use against U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activities.
The drone effort is also part of one of the most popular aspects of Obama's first-term record. "Handling the threat of terrorism" has been President Obama's strongest issue consistently for most of his presidency. Fifty-six percent approved when we last asked in January, the only one of seven items on which he had majority approval.
The president also holds an edge over GOP rival Mitt Romney in who is more trusted to handle terrorism, 47-40 percent in the April ABC News/Washington Post poll.