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A RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle conducting tests over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.

HANDOUT/Reuters

A series of leaks out of the U.S. security establishment has shed some welcome new light on the so-called "kill lists" for drone strikes, along with other illuminating details about double-agent operations and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. For example, the leaks have revealed that all young men in a strike zone are deemed combatants, on the assumption that nobody loiters near al-Qaeda leaders unless they are bad guys who deserve a fiery death.

Republicans accuse the White House of orchestrating the leaks to make President Barack Obama look tough and decisive in advance of this fall's election. Congress is consumed with the question of whether sensitive details are being used for political gain. Mr. Obama dismissed those allegations as "offensive" and his Attorney-General launched an investigation into the leaks on Friday, but it's plausible that the stories came from his administration. U.S. Senator John McCain called for the appointment of a special prosecutor on Monday, and his colleagues are keeping up a drumbeat of outrage.

It's true that leaks would be strictly forbidden in a perfect system, and these latest disclosures appear to be self-serving. But they have nevertheless offered a useful window into the U.S. security apparatus – and reminded us how little we still know about it.

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The United States' security policy has global reach, and remains too opaque. Those who live outside U.S. borders are curious about the top-secret world, not simply because it's the thrilling stuff of Tom Clancy novels, but more importantly because the public does not know how the American government decides to kill someone. Statements from U.S. officials suggest that any person can be marked for death if they belong to a proscribed organization and are deemed an imminent threat to U.S citizens.

Does that mean you will get blasted by a drone if you change your Twitter profile to read "member of Al-Qaeda" and post an update such as "I hate Americans"? Probably not, if you're an ordinary Canadian, but only a small number of people with elite security clearances know how the targets are selected. Those high-level members of the U.S. security establishment rarely talk – except now, during the frenzy of election season.

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