Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:46 PM
WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work 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, two administration officials said.
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 still is pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about when lethal action is justified.
Obama and his advisers are 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.
More broadly, the administration's legal reasoning has not convinced many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.
But 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 attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Obama, revealed some details of the president's role in the shifting procedures for compiling "kill lists" and approving strikes.
Though national-security officials insist the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.
"There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Obama did not want to leave an "amorphous" program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, he said.
Obama has acknowledged the legal governance of drone strikes is a work in progress. "One of the things we've got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president's reined in (in) terms of some of the decisions that we're making," Obama told Jon Stewart in an Oct. 18 appearance on "The Daily Show."
Despite public remarks by Obama and his aides about the legal basis for targeted killing, the program remains officially classified. In court, fighting lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking secret legal opinions on targeted killings, the government has refused even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan.
In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of al-Qaida thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Obama has emphasized.
But for at least two years in Pakistan, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
"Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States," said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. "We don't say that we're the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are."
Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan-born analyst now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States should start making public a detailed account of the results of each strike, in part to counter propaganda from jihadist groups.
"This is a grand opportunity for the Obama administration to take the drones out of the shadows and to be open about their objectives," he said.
But the administration appears to be a long way from embracing such openness. The draft rule book for drone strikes that has been passed among agencies in the past several months is so highly classified, officials said, that it is hand-carried from office to office.
KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH / AP
Drone aircraft, such as this one flying in Afghanistan, spy on and attack terrorists with no pilot in harm's way.
PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
President Obama, advisers writing rule book