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Now, to an issue that has been much debated here in the U. S., drones and targeted killing. When President Obama took office four years ago, he broke publicly with the phrase that goes hand in hand with this kind of warfare, the global war on terror. But as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, many of the legal theories behind that provocative concept remain intact.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: After 9/11, President Bush often made a provocative claim. He argued that the U.S. is fighting a war without a typical battlefield. In effect, he said, this war is everywhere. This was a 2007 speech in Michigan.

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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our enemies make no distinction based on borders. They view the world as a giant battlefield and will strike wherever they can.

SHAPIRO: And he said the U.S. has to fight back accordingly, without borders. That idea has profound legal implications. If the whole world is a battlefield, then the laws that apply uniquely to war apply everywhere for the foreseeable future. When President Obama took office, he changed the rhetoric. Global war on terror had bad connotations from the Bush years, and al-Qaida was using it as a recruiting tool. But Obama never abandoned the idea of global war. This was a speech at the National Archives a few months after he took office.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are indeed at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates.

SHAPIRO: Its affiliates include a huge range of terrorist groups, in countries around the world, some with only loose ties to al-Qaida. So it remains a global war in practice, if not in name, something the administration has struggled to explain. Here's law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell trying to pin down State Department legal adviser Harold Koh at a speech a few years ago.

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MARY ELLEN O'CONNELL: What I'm hearing you say is that the Obama administration continues to see that there is such a conception as a global war on terror, and I would just urge you to reconsider.

HAROLD KOH: I didn't say that, Mary Ellen.

O'CONNELL: You believe that it's possible to target to kill.

KOH: I said a lot of things in my remarks. That's not one of the things I said.

SHAPIRO: Now, the administration has revealed more of its legal thinking behind these policies, and the debate is getting even hotter. Karen Greenberg directs the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. She says it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck.

KAREN GREENBERG: Look, when you are using Predator drone strikes to attack enemies in countries from Africa to South Asia, you are engaged in a global war on terror.

SHAPIRO: The administration likes to emphasize that drone strikes are just one tool used sparingly. Tommy Vietor just stepped down as spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.

TOMMY VIETOR: Most of counterterrorism work is not killing people. It's governance and development and capacity building with our partners. The president views this as being really a long game.

SHAPIRO: But at the end of the game, it sounds like those are judgment calls made by the people in charge, not legal handcuffs the people in charge cannot escape.

VIETOR: Those are judgment calls. I mean, a specific action is taken based on the specific circumstances involved.

SHAPIRO: This president has used drones far more than Bush did. That's partly because the technology keeps getting better and cheaper. Drones are also a useful substitute for putting American troops in harm's way, says Matthew Waxman. He's a Columbia law professor who served in the Bush administration.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: The Obama administration has learned once you get into office and are dealing with national security crises around the world, you want to assert the kinds of powers you see as necessary to deal with them.

SHAPIRO: The legal authority for drone strikes comes from a law that Congress passed just after 9/11. It's called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Yesterday, a New York Times editorial said that law has created a perpetual, ever-expanding war and called on Congress to repeal the law. Neither Congress nor President Obama has shown any desire to do so. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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