Expanding the drone campaign would be illegal, Mr. President

Even at this moment of panic, Congress refused to hand Bush a blank check: “Given the breadth of activities potentially encompassed by the term ‘aggression,’ the President might never again have had to seek congressional authorization for the use of force to combat terrorism,” David Abramowitz, chief counsel to what was then the House Committee on International Relations, wrote in a Harvard legal journal in 2002. Congress’s final resolution eliminated the offending language and authorized the use of force against groups and countries that were involved in “the terrorist attacks on September 11th.” The effect was to require the president to return to Congress, and the American people, for another round of express support for military campaigns against other terrorist threats.

The Petraeus proposal, reported this week by The Post, assaults this fundamental principle. Up to now, the CIA’s drone campaign in Yemen has kept close to the legal line by restricting strikes to terrorist leaders, like the American Anwar al-Awlaki. Such leaders may have had personal links to the original al-Qaeda group, based in South Asia, that targeted New York and Washington in 2001. But now Petraeus is seeking permission to expand bombing raids whenever there is “suspicious behavior” at sites known to be controlled by a terrorist group — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — that did not exist on Sept. 11.