Last week, I wrote about the legal and ethical issues with the United States’ use of unmanned drones to carry out strikes on suspected militants in areas of world where the U.S. is not formally engaged in war, such as Pakistan. 

Just two days after my essay, the New York Times reported that President Obama’s legal team is in the midst hotly contested debate on whether to expand the United States’ work to kill Islamic militants in Yemen and Somalia. According to the Times, it is “a question that could define the limits of the war against Al Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.” 

From the story:

The debate, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, centers on whether the United States may take aim at only a handful of high-level leaders of militant groups who are personally linked to plots to attack the United States or whether it may also attack the thousands of low-level foot soldiers focused on parochial concerns: controlling the essentially ungoverned lands near the Gulf of Aden, which separates the countries.

The dispute over limits on the use of lethal force in the region — whether from drone strikes, cruise missiles or commando raids — has divided the State Department and the Pentagon for months, although to date it remains a merely theoretical disagreement. Current administration policy is to attack only “high-value individuals” in the region, as it has tried to do about a dozen times.

But the unresolved question is whether the administration can escalate attacks if it wants to against rank-and-file members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and the Somalia-based Shabab. The answer could lay the groundwork for a shift in the fight against terrorists as the original Al Qaeda, operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, grows weaker. That organization has been crippled by the killing of Osama bin Laden and by a fierce campaign of drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where the legal authority to attack militants who are battling United States forces in adjoining Afghanistan is not disputed inside the administration.