Since 2004, the US drone war has been carried
out under a cloak of secrecy in countries with which the US is not
officially at war.
Drone strikes are largely undertaken by the CIA under strict supervision by the White House.
With increasing insistence, critics at home and abroad have been demanding more transparency into how terrorist targets are chosen. Congress meanwhile has become progressively uneasy over its lack of control over this revolution in war technology that allows remote, unmanned attacks across the globe.
In a speech Thursday, US President Barack Obama answered some of the criticism and unveiled steps towards greater transparency.
But he left unanswered questions about "signature strikes": attacks on people on the ground whose identity is unknown, but whose behaviour appears suspicious.
Those "signature" attacks differ from strikes on identifiable and known terrorist suspects whose names are on a kill list kept by the Obama administration, analysts say.
"Signature strikes" have killed many innocent bystanders, according to reports from the Brookings Institution, the International Crisis Group and other analysts.
Obama also did not publicly address expectations that he will move the drone programme into the Pentagon, where it would better serve military strategy, says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution.
Administration officials told reporters before the speech that Obama does intend to bring drone strikes under auspices of the defence department.
Obama defended the legality of the drone war under US and international law, citing the 2001 authorization by Congress for the president to wage war on al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies.
Obama said current drone actions are bound by "respect for state sovereignty," and are used when no other government can address the threat or the US cannot physically capture a suspect.
Pakistan's High Court this month declared the strikes a war crime and authorized the government to shoot down drones, raising the prospect of continuing tensions between Washington and Islamabad.
In his speech, Obama revealed that he had signed a set of guidelines on the use of force in counterterrorism operations outside the US and its war zones. At present, this applies only to Afghanistan.
According to a fact sheet distributed by officials on those "standards for the use of lethal force," captures are preferred to kills because they can produce "meaningful intelligence" about terrorist plots.
The problem with capturing suspects, however, is that putting US boots on the ground "may trigger a major international crisis," Obama said in his speech. He noted the "severe" backlash in Pakistan after the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and said such operations "cannot be the norm."
A major guideline for killing a terrorist suspect says there must be a direct threat against the United States or US persons, and there must be a legal basis as determined by senior levels of the US government, the fact sheet says.
Targets can be a "senior operational leader of a terrorist organization" or forces the organization is using or intends to use to carry out a terrorist attack.
The guidelines also list criteria for a decision to kill a suspect, including near certainty that the person is present, that non-combatants won't be injured and that capture is not possible.
"These strikes have saved lives," Obama said.
Obama acknowledged that there were civilian deaths in some drone strikes, but added that the terrorists themselves target civilians.
"The death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," he said.
Obama said his administration would discuss with Congress the possible formation of a special court or independent oversight board for drone strikes.
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