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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. And we begin this hour with a decade of change. The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is just days away and all this week, we're talking about how our society has changed, how our security has changed, how the fight against al-Qaida has changed. It's that last part we'll hear about today, the covert U.S. war in the northwest part of Pakistan, and specifically, the use of a weapon that has become a mainstay of the U.S. arsenal in this post-9/11 era. NPR's Rachel Martin reports on how drones have changed the way the nation fights terrorism.

RACHEL MARTIN: The United States has fired about 270 missiles into Pakistan since 2004. According to the U.S. government, thousands of militants have been killed, dozens of them so-called high-value targets, like al-Qaida's number two, who was killed in a strike last month. These attacks are run by the CIA so they're secret. So no one in the U.S. government is supposed to admit they're happening.

Ambassador SUSAN RICE: I'm not going to get into operational matters.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I will not talk about that specifically, but generally, let me say that there's a war going on.

General DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, again, I'm not gonna talk about specific types of attacks in particular. Again, we never comment about the drone attacks.

MARTIN: That was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the incoming head of the CIA, David Petraeus, each not talking about the drone strikes.

PETER BERGEN: This is the least well-kept secret in the history of secrecy. Everybody knows these are happening. Everybody knows the Pakistanis are involved in some way. Everybody knows we're doing it.

MARTIN: Peter Bergen is with the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington that's compiled extensive data on the U.S. drone strikes. The attacks started under the Bush administration and they've increased fivefold under President Obama. Last year, there were 118 drone strikes into Pakistan. So, what changed? Why the dramatic increase? According to former U.S. officials, the Obama administration made a decision to double down on the drone campaign. The technology had gotten better.

Drones could hover for days at a time and as a result, the strikes were working. Key leaders were being killed. Peter W. Singer is with the Brookings Institution.

PETER W. SINGER: In a lot of cases, they will track that target not just for minutes, but hours, even days, getting a pattern of life, of what's happening there, who's coming and going from that compound, where are they, following them when they're in the car. And then you get the strike.

MARTIN: And the strikes weren't just against al-Qaida's leadership. In 2008, the Bush administration broadened the campaign to include lower-ranking foot soldiers. They also started targeting groups that Pakistan also saw as threats. The Obama administration did the same thing. U.S. officials say the strikes are crucial to keeping al-Qaida off-balance. But that tactical success comes at a cost.

FRANCES TOWNSEND: There is the potential for backlash.

MARTIN: That's Frances Townsend. She served as President Bush's homeland security adviser.

TOWNSEND: And in each case, you're making a policy judgment about the potential gain versus those risks.

MARTIN: One big risk - fueling anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Officials there allow the drone operations, but at the same time, Pakistan resents the U.S. for carrying out strikes on its territory. So, the U.S. and Pakistan are locked in a toxic marriage where neither partner trusts the other, but walking away isn't an option. Former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair argues it's time to make the Pakistanis an equal partner in the strikes putting, quote, "two hands on the trigger" as he says, so they feel more invested in the outcome.

And there's another problem, the killing of civilians. It's unclear how many innocent people have died in the strikes - between 50 and 300, depending on who's counting. But Fran Townsend says the secrecy of the drone campaign is a liability of sorts. Neither the U.S. or Pakistan will admit the strikes are happening, which makes defending them almost impossible.

TOWNSEND: I do think there's an opportunity now for the administration to have some public discussion about the necessity of the tool, the care with which it is deployed, if we are to expect that the American people will continue to support such a program in the future.

MARTIN: For now, the U.S. government has no plans to ease up on the drone strikes, talk about them, or give Pakistan more say in how they're done - far from it. A couple months ago, a top security adviser to President Obama, Doug Lute, was asked about the drone strikes at a security conference. He said Osama bin Laden's death makes the strikes even more important.

DOUG LUTE: So this is a period of turbulence in an organization which is our arch enemy. This is a period, therefore, that all military doctrine suggests you need to go for the knockout punch.

MARTIN: Lute said, yes, the U.S. does need a real partnership with Pakistan. But, he said, quote, "I'm not ready to switch gears in the next six months when we've got a chance of a lifetime." Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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