A bipartisan panel of senators held a spirited and unusually public debate Tuesday afternoon about the legality and unintended consequences of America’s targeted killings overseas, a forum convened amid growing calls for stronger oversight of the government’s use of armed drones outside conventional battlefields.
Among those testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee was a young Yemeni activist who argued passionately that American drone strikes in Yemen are emboldening the country’s al-Qaeda franchise, embittering Yemenis against the United States and delegitimizing the government in Sanaa.
Just six days ago, Farea al-Muslimi said, a suspected U.S. drone strike was carried out in his native village of Wessab, enraging residents.
“They fear that their home or a neighbor’s home could be bombed at any time by a U.S. drone,” said Muslimi, who studied in the United States as an exchange student when he was 16. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”
Senators from both parties lamented that the White House declined to make a witness available for the hearing, titled “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterrorism Implications of Targeted Killings.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who presided over the hearing, said it was important to review whether current laws sanction drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not formally fighting a war but relies on remotely piloted aircraft to killed suspected militants.
“The use of drones has, in stark terms, made targeted killing more efficient and less costly — in terms of American blood and treasure,” said Durbin, who noted that the hearing was the first of its kind. “There are, however, long-term consequences, especially when these airstrikes kill innocent civilians.”
The legal underpinning of the drone program is a congressional resolution passed a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, authorizing the use of military force. Legal experts say the new realities of American warfare urgently need an updated rule book.
President Obama has said he would like Congress to help him establish a “legal architecture” for targeted killing to “make sure that not only I am reined in but any president is reined in.” But no such legislative initiative appears to be underway.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor who served as a Pentagon policy adviser, said the use of drones would not necessarily be problematic if the country had a clear and legally sound legal framework for targeted killings.
“Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate,” she said. “But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who oversaw targeting operations in Africa, said remotely piloted aircraft have proven to be highly precise, nimble weapons and argued that their use is currently subject to a thorough review process.
“The time between strike approval and weapons release is minimal, maximizing the opportunity to reach the desired effect,” she said.
Muslimi said that across villages in Yemen, mention of the weapons elicits such fear that parents have come to use the threat of drone strikes to get kids to go to bed.
“Go to sleep or I will call the planes,” he said, quoting a parental tactic he recently learned about.