In the war on terror, the Obama administration has eschewed putting military forces on the ground in favor of surgically precise drone strikes. The campaign is constitutionally dubious, although the program’s backers say it is more humane, as it means the loss of fewer innocent lives, and more effective. That the drone program is waged mostly in the shadows, and thus keeps gruesome images off television screens, is considered by the administration to be a benefit as well.

The drone program comes to mind as the Department of Justice fends off questions this week about its decision to subpoena two months of phone and email records from reporters and editors at the Associated Press. Typically, when federal agents want a reporter to disclose a source, the reporter is subpoenaed and forced to name names or face jail time. That happened to Judith Miller and, more recently, to Jeffrey Sterling.

But like the drone strikes, Justice Department officials say the subpoena method is, in the end, more efficient and more humane. It keeps reporters loath to give up their sources out of jail, and it permits federal officials to track down leakers more quickly. And the surgical strike on newsroom records avoids months and months of high profile court cases, with every news outlet in the country screaming about the First Amendment.

“From the department’s perspective, this is a much less aggressive step than putting someone in front of a grand jury or putting them on trial,” said Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. “You trying to balance reporters’ needs and ability to do their job, and the department’s need to fully investigate a crime, and this step achieves that balance.”

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