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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And so I wasn't sure that I should actually come tonight.

SULLIVAN: Here's a speech President Barack Obama gave on a March evening a couple years ago at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington.

OBAMA: Biden talked me into it.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Journalists and politicians who attend this dinner call it nerd prom. It's black tie, there are a lot of drinks, lots of schmoozing, and the night is punctuated every year by a big funny speech from the president.

OBAMA: Besides, I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: But on this night back in 2010 for a very small group of people who follow the world of national defense - people like Tom Junod of Esquire magazine - one of the president's jokes took on a very different meaning.

OBAMA: The Jonas Brothers are here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: They're out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you: predator drones.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You will never see it coming.

TOM JUNOD: I wasn't there for that moment, so I don't - it's hard for me to describe.

OBAMA: You think I'm joking.

JUNOD: But I can describe what I hear on the tape, which is, you know, a man who has become quite accustomed to the use of that power and an audience that is quite accustomed to him using that power to the extent that it's a laugh line.

OBAMA: You will never see it coming.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You think I'm joking.

SULLIVAN: Two years later, this takes on a grim new meaning. Last fall, one casualty of the U.S.' ramped-up use of drone warfare was a 16-year-old boy, a U.S. citizen named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki as he sat around a campfire in Yemen. It's a story that represents what Tom Junod calls the lethal presidency.

Just last week, Pakistani officials say 18 more people were killed by drones, including possibly a top commander of the Haqqani network. That's our cover story today: a look at the expansive, new and often lethal power of the commander in chief and what that means in a presidential election year.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: It's hard to know if the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a target or collateral damage. These programs are top secret and rarely discussed in public. But we do know that the boy's father, an al-Qaida supporter, was killed in a drone strike just two weeks earlier in Yemen. The two of them, plus one other man, now makes three U.S. citizens believed to have been killed by a U.S. drone.

JUNOD: And we have no idea why this happened, how this happened, what the standards were. We are kept completely in the dark.

SULLIVAN: Tom Junod argues in an era of drones and highly trained special forces when the U.S. no longer fights countries but groups of people, the commander in chief now has unprecedented power to kill those people, not with an army sent to a rogue nation, but with technology, with drones or with elite special forces targeting people individually.

None of this has been confirmed by any official sources, only by anonymous government leaks, most notably to The New York Times, which reported earlier this summer that the president oversees secret kill lists of suspected terrorist leaders and makes the final call on whom to take out.

JUNOD: Nobody inherited that power when it was being used the way that Barack Obama did. And certainly, nobody has expanded the use of that power the way he has. He has turned it from a power to a policy.

SULLIVAN: We'll take a look at what's behind this shift in policy with two experts on modern warfare. In a minute, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution on the dramatic rise of armed drones, but first, Eric Schmitt of The New York Times who's written about the rise of special operations forces. Part of that rise, he says, is a demand for less defense spending, smaller numbers of enlistees. But mostly, Schmitt says, it was a change set in motion after 9/11.

ERIC SCHMITT: Right after 9/11, the immediate impact was, how do we get a force into Afghanistan? And the only force capable of going in quickly were the small number of American special operations forces. But as we saw over the decade, the special operations force, the number of personnel itself, is now about 66,000, which is roughly double since it was on 9/11 itself.

SULLIVAN: Wow. There's 66,000...

SCHMITT: That's the actual number of people. That's civilians and military personnel. At any given time around the world today, there are about 12,000 basically military personnel deployed in over 70 countries. And so again...

SULLIVAN: That's a large group.

SCHMITT: It is a large group. Their budget has increased over $10 billion a year now from just over four billion in 2011. As we see a downturn in defense spending overall, their budgets are actually going to stay roughly the same or maybe even increase a little bit. That's the premium that they're putting.

SULLIVAN: Wow. Do you think there's something particular to President Obama that draws him to the use of special forces?

SCHMITT: Well, again, I think it's - this president has learned the lessons the hard way in many ways of large land deployments, and the backlash that can cause in Muslim countries. I think the president has recognized, and this administration has recognized, as the Bush administration did before them, the value that they bring, both in nightly combat or if it's in more far-flung countries where you're trying to introduce military skills but on a smaller scale that doesn't necessarily attract attention and perhaps opposition.

SULLIVAN: There is also the other fear, though, that special forces can operate in a clandestine manner and perhaps without as much oversight. Is there a fear that in the future that this could ramp up to such a level that it could operate having to answer very few questions about what's happening and where it's happening?

SCHMITT: Well, this is one of the interesting questions because some people complain about the militarization of the CIA, but other people have talked about the increasing covert nature of special operations forces and what they do. And unlike the CIA when it carries out missions overseas, there is a very longstanding practice in law of reporting these operations to the Congress.

The reporting requirements aren't quite as clear when it comes to special operations forces, particularly if they're operating in a covert-type basis. So there are members of Congress that are seeking to clarify this as they anticipate the increased use of special operations forces for sensitive missions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITT: I think this is something that won't be reversed no matter who wins the next election because, I think, the special operations forces have demonstrated their flexibility and versatility in the type of missions they can carry out.

SULLIVAN: Eric Schmitt covers national security and terrorism for The New York Times. His book about the U.S. government's secret counterterrorism operations is called "Counterstrike." Special forces are just one part of all of this. The technology behind drones - or as the military prefers, unmanned aerial vehicles - has also changed dramatically in the last few years.

Under President Bush, the U.S. used mainly the Predator drone system, which was originally designed only for surveillance. It had to be retrofitted to carry a single missile. Today, its replacement, a Reaper drone, can carry six missiles. Drones can fly longer. They have better surveillance capabilities. But also, says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution...

PETER SINGER: Then, of course, you also have the political side of this, the willingness to use them. That clearly has gone up in the Obama administration. I mean, essentially if you're looking at Pakistan, we've carried out 340 strikes there total, about 290 of them during the Obama administration. So that's definitely a ramp-up that can't just be focused on in terms of the technology.

SULLIVAN: Who's really behind the strikes? Is it the military, or is it the CIA?

SINGER: You have the overt use of these technologies in a place like Afghanistan. Then you move over to the covert side, the CIA, or it may involve JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, which is the military's version of the black world. These two different covert sides interact, but they do have different kill lists, so to speak. And sometimes you'll see public figures say, well, we don't do, for example, signature strikes. But they'll be talking about one kill list, not the other kill list.

SULLIVAN: Why doesn't the United States have just one kill list? Why do we have separate kill lists for separate government entities?

SINGER: It's a good question. We live in a political world, and so you have different entities out there - the military versus the CIA. One may be exclusively focused on counterterrorism. Another one may be, for example, in Yemen trying to figure out how to support Yemeni military in its efforts against the rebellion that's gotten mixed together with al-Qaida. You also have, frankly, just bureaucracies that are at clash, and then people sometimes may take advantage of that where they'll go, OK, I can't get this guy on this list, so can he make that list?

That ad hoc arrangement has worked, but there are some concerns about do we want other nations out there acting in the same way. What happens when it morphs into operations like a Yemen or maybe even one day a Syria? We've got to figure out how to put in more layers of oversight, not just within the executive branch, but Congress has to step up and play a deeper role.

SULLIVAN: With these kills lists, does President Obama always make the final call no matter what list it is?

SINGER: If we believe the leaks, the president has taken on the role that previous President Bush once described of himself, and we kind of laughed when, you know, he said, I'm the decider. In this case, it does appear that the president is playing that role of the ultimate decider.

The concern in the long term - we might be reassured by having someone who is a former law professor taking on that role. There's a lot of people who I think are comfortable with a president who is from their own political party, who I can imagine reacting very differently with a different president from a different political party or maybe when it moves beyond just being about traditional al-Qaida.

Essentially, the defense that the executive branch has taken so far is they've said, look, we are providing due process. It's just due process that takes place within the executive branch. That stretches the definition of due process. And as this becomes regularized, you may want Congress to play, you know, the role that the constitutional framers originally intended when we define things like due process.

The point I'm getting at here is that it may make sense in the here and now, but when we look at it as a long-term proposition, it may fall apart as being the best possible way.

SULLIVAN: Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution. His book on modern warfare technology is called "Wire for War." Stay tuned. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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