The use of drones has proved attractive to President Obama because few American lives are at risk. The problem now is how easy it is to operate the semi-secret program.

Increasingly the people killed in drone strikes are not high-value targets but lower-level militants in places like Pakistan and Yemen who don’t pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, says Scott Shane, a New York Times national security correspondent who has reported extensively on the use of drones. The ease with which the technology has become used now reflects a kind of “mission creep.”

“The strange thing about how we have embraced this technology is that we have embraced it without a public debate,” Shane told an audience Tuesday at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Shane has written extensively about Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric killed in a U.S. done strike in 2011, targeted as a senior operative in Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. The case may be the first time the U.S. government has killed an American citizen outside a war zone without handing down criminal charges or without trial. Shane said the Al-Awlaki case will stand out as a landmark for the Obama administration and, ultimately, a landmark in American history.

“That’s an extraordinary thing to happen on the basis of a secret legal opinion and then carried out by a liberal Democratic president who ran against a lot of the Bush counterterror programs and who promised to run the most transparent administration in history,” Shane said.

Shane was joined on stage at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs by former Vice President Walter Mondale, who, while in the U.S. Senate, was a member of the Church Committee, which investigated alleged abuses of U.S. intelligence agencies, leading to sweeping reforms.

Mondale said new technologies and an unlimited flow of information have diminished reforms he helped usher in. “I think the time has come to see if we can rethink this and put a new regime in place that gets control and makes it accountable again,” Mondale said.