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Editorial: Do drone attacks go too far?

FILE -- In an Oct. 25 2007 file phoPredator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off U.S. Customs Border Patrol missifrom

FILE -- In an Oct. 25, 2007 file photo a Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a U.S. Customs Border Patrol mission from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law-enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act for safety reasons. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin/file)

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Updated: June 12, 2012 4:33PM

America’s drone war can seem far away and unrelated to our daily lives.

But we can’t ignore it. It’s time for a national conversation on the direction high-tech warfare is taking us — and the rest of the world.

The White House has a written legal justification for aspects of drone warfare. It’s time to see it.

America has been running an airstrike campaign in Pakistan for eight years. More recently, attacks have expanded to Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The strikes are carried out by unmanned drones that fire missiles at people we deem to be threats. Most recently, Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, was killed in northwest Pakistan. Al-Libi was the latest of more than a dozen senior commanders taken out since Osama bin Laden was killed more than a year ago.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized the attacks will continue. “We have made it very clear we are going to continue to defend ourselves,” Panetta said.

It’s hard to argue with that. We admit to a feeling of satisfaction when we heard that al-Libi had been taken out, dealing al-Qaida another deadly blow.

But what’s not clear is how this fits with the Constitution and the fabric of what America is all about. That’s the conversation we need.

Some might point out that a drone war is preferable to sending American soldiers to fight a conventional war, with all the ensuing casualties.

Others might argue that targeting militants protects us from attacks here at home, possibly devastating ones.

Still others might worry that drone warfare, with its attendant civilian casualties, stirs up anger — and that in the long run we are creating more enemies than we are eliminating. Do Pakistan and Yemen seem more stable today than when the drone war started?

As citizens, we need to know how people wind up on the list of terrorist targets to be killed or captured.

Last year, when the United States was targeting an al-Qaida-linked American citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel put together a memo laying out a legal basis for drones to kill American citizens in countries that the United States is not at war with. Al-Awlaki was indeed killed, along with another American, Samir Khan.

But President Barack Obama is keeping that all-important legal memo secret. It’s time he releases it. Democracies should not make war on the basis of legal memos nobody gets to see. That stops our national discussion in its tracks.

This issue will not go away. Other nations will push to buy drones or will build their own. The rules of international warfare will change.

We need to talk about what those rules should be.

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