Over the winter, I heard military commanders and White House officials murmur in hushed tones about how they would have to figure out a legal and moral framework for the flying killer robots executing targets around the globe.

They were starting to realize that, while the American public approves of remotely killing terrorists, it is a drain on the democratic soul to zap people with no due process and little regard for the loss of innocents. But they never got around to it, leaving Rand Paul to take the moral high ground.

After two bloody, money-sucking, never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the idea of a weapon for war that precluded having anyone actually go to war was too captivating. Our sophisticated, sleek, smart, detached president was ensorcelled by our sophisticated, sleek, smart, detached war machine.

In an interview with Jon Stewart last year, President Obama allowed that he was in the grip of a powerful infatuation. “One of the things that we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place,” he said, “and we need Congressional help to do that to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president is reined in.” America’s secret drone programme, continually lowering the bar for lethal action, turns the president, the CIA director and counterterrorism advisers into a star chamber running a war beyond war zones that employs a scalpel rather than a hammer, as the new Langley chief, John Brennan, puts it.

But as The Times’s Mark Mazzetti notes in his new book, “The Way of the Knife,” “the analogy suggests that this new kind of war is without costs or blunders - a surgery without complications. This isn’t the case.”

Mazzetti raises the issue of whether the CIA - which once sold golf shirts with Predator logos in its gift shop - became “so enamored of its killer drones that it wasn’t pushing its analysts to ask a basic question: To what extent might the drone strikes be creating more terrorists than they are actually killing?”

Mazzetti writes that Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, watched one of the first drone strikes via satellite at Langley a few weeks after 9/11. As he saw a Mitsubishi truck in Afghanistan being blown up, Dearlove smiled wryly. “It almost isn’t sporting, is it?” the Brit asked.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld and his hawkish inner circle were disgusted that the CIA dismissed their spurious claims of a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda, so they set up their own CIA at the Pentagon. Soldiers became spies.

Meanwhile, the CIA was setting up its own Pentagon at Langley, running the ever-expanding paramilitary drone operation. Spies became soldiers.  Mazzetti writes that after 9/11, the CIA director morphed into “a military commander running a clandestine, global war with a skeleton staff and very little oversight.” Why did the CIA, as Gen James Cartwright asked when he was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, need to build “a second Air Force”?

Leon Panetta made the CIA far more militarised and then went to the Pentagon. When an actual military commander, David Petraeus, became head spook in 2011, he embraced the drone programme, pushed to expand the fleet and conducted the first robo-targeted killing of an American citizen.

“A spy agency that on September 11, 2001, had been decried as bumbling and risk-averse had, under the watchful eye of four successive CIA directors, gone on a killing spree,” Mazzetti writes.

The CIA now has a drone base in Saudi Arabia, and both the Pentagon and the spy agency are running parallel drone wars in Yemen, each fighting for resources. And the Pentagon continues its foray into human spying. As W George Jameson, a lawyer who spent 33 years at the CIA, lamented: “Everything is backwards. You’ve got an intelligence agency fighting a war and a military organisation trying to gather on-the-ground intelligence.”

Mazzetti observes that the CIA, playing catch-up through so much of the Arab Spring, has turned a perilous corner, where a new generation at Langley much prefers “the adrenaline rush of being at the front lines” hunting and killing to the more patient, tedious, “gentle” work of intelligence gathering and espionage. Relying on foreign spies for counterterrorism information can blind you to what is really happening on the ground.

Ross Newland, a career clandestine officer, told Mazzetti that the allure of killing people by remote control is “catnip,” and that the agency should have given up Predators and Reapers long ago. The death robots have turned the CIA into the villain in places like Pakistan, Newland said, where the agency’s mission is supposed to be nurturing relationships to gather intelligence.

President Obama, who continued nearly every covert programme handed down by W Bush, clearly feels tough when he talks about targeted killings, and considers drones an attractive option. As Mazzetti says, “fundamental questions about who can be killed, where they can be killed, and when they can be killed” still have not been answered or publicly discussed. It almost isn’t sporting, is it?             –NY Times