Whenever a Bush lieutenant would herald progress against AQ, the left would point to some jihadi still on the loose or some plot that had only recently been interrupted and sneer that it was “some progress.” It was a bad rap then and it’d be a bad rap to do the same to Panetta. He’s not declaring mission accomplished, or that jihad as we know it has ceased to exist. He’s saying they’re in bad shape.

Which, from what I can tell, they are.

So profound is al-Qaeda’s disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded to bin Laden to come to the group’s rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta told The Washington Post in an interview.

Panetta credited an increasingly aggressive campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies, including more frequent strikes and better coordination with Pakistan. He called it “the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history.”

“Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda,” Panetta said. “It’s pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run.”

I’ve written before — more than a year ago, in fact — about the unusual surge in effectiveness of American drone strikes on AQ and Taliban targets. More shots fired, more targets hit, and more important jihadis liquidated. Back in September, WaPo quoted U.S. intelligence sources as saying that we’d finally penetrated Al Qaeda with spies, and I believe them. If you’re inclined to doubt, click here and scroll through Bill Roggio’s list of terrorists killed by drones since 2004. Notice anything unusual starting in, say, 2008? Be sure also to compare the number killed in all 12 months of 2009 with the number killed so far through two and half months of 2010. The latest is Sadam Hussein Al Hussami, whose death was announced just today; he too was a big fish, with a presence in both Pakistan and in AQ’s new haven in Yemen, and he was allegedly directly involved in that CIA base bombing in Afghanistan just before New Year’s. More from Roggio:

Since Dec. 8, 2009, the air campaign in Pakistan has killed four senior al Qaeda leaders, a senior Taliban commander, three senior al Qaeda operatives, and a wanted Palestinian terrorist who was allied with al Qaeda. The status of several others – a two top Pakistani Taliban leaders, a member of al Qaeda’s top council, and a wanted Philippine terrorist – is still unknown…

Already this year, the US has killed Mansur al Shami, an al Qaeda ideologue and aide to al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan Mustafa Abu Yazid; Haji Omar Khan, a senior Taliban leader in North Waziristan; Mohammed Haqqani, a military commander in the Haqqani Network; Sheikh Mansoor, an al Qaeda Shadow Army commander; Qari Mohammad Zafar, a leader of the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Fedayeen-i-Islam; and Sadam Hussein Al Hussami, a senior operative in al Qaeda’s external operations branch. Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, the Abu Nidal Organization operative who participated in killing 22 hostages during the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am flight 73, is thought to have been killed in the Jan. 9 airstrike.

Among those rumored to be killed but not yet confirmed: Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban’s leader in the field. It’s gotten so bad that stories have started trickling out about AQ possibly turning to a “lone gunman” strategy of terror relying more heavily on homegrown jihadis who are already here in lieu of ambitious operations assembled overseas.

Naturally, with drone strikes proving more effective than ever, Obama’s now under legal pressure from the ACLU to discontinue them, but I give him full credit for resisting the left thus far. Summarily executing these turds with missiles cuts entirely against the Eric Holder’s “innocent until proven guilty” criminal-law ethos of counterterrorism, but in this case, three cheers for hypocrisy. Exit question: Who wants to be the one to tell McChrystal that our AG says it’s categorically impossible to capture Bin Laden alive? Because the general, fool that he is, still seems to be planning on it.