Senators of myriad ideologies spoke as one Tuesday afternoon, calling for increased transparency in the White House’s drone strike program. Unanimity was the rule at a hearing on “the constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killing,” the first of its kind. Citing a lack of oversight, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) criticized the Obama administration for failing to provide witnesses (which the hearing had been postponed to accommodate). Pressing legal and national security questions were echoed by a diverse assemblage of experts, ranging from a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a Yemeni journalist. All six personally endorsed Senator Cruz’ absolute rejection of the federal government’s constitutional authority to strike an American citizen associated with al Qaeda on U.S. soil who posed no imminent threat.
Retired Marine four-star general James Cartwright declared support for the drone program, but repeatedly said he was “concerned that we have conceded some of our moral high ground in pursuing this campaign.” Farea Al-Muslimi validated the concern, referencing the drone strike his village Sana’a experienced on April 17. He claimed the target, Hamid Radman al Manea, was known to locals and Yemeni authorities, who could have easily detained him. Al-Muslimi said he wanted to share the America he came to know and love in a year of State Department-funded study there. But his neighbors now associate it with the terror of living under drones:
Senator Franken wondered if there was a “qualitative difference” in the blowback engendered by drones. Ostensibly they are more precise than other platforms, a point retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally discussed. A key figure in the program’s genesis, she explained that each aircraft is backed by a team of 200 people, including intelligence analysts and lawyers. Hours of loiter time allow them to verify multiple information sources and evaluate collateral damage risk before deciding whether to strike. Traditional jet fighters’ limited range and high speed require spot decisions, to say nothing of the risk to pilots. Secrecy notwithstanding, “RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) give unprecedented, persistent oversight.”
Franken then asked Farea Al-Muslimi: “Is there a different kind of blowback?”
“The drones have simply made more mistakes than [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has ever done,” he replied, taking pains to reiterate that targeted individuals are conceivably capturable. Numbers do not matter, he continued, but rather the ability to convince people that the U.S. is at war with Yemen’s civilian population. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) noted later that, “Somehow there is the appearance, the perception of greater damage and possible mistakes” due to drones. Al-Muslimi explained that most “mistakes” are unaware that a particular individual is a target. Blowback arises because strikes make civilians fear the U.S. more than al Qaeda.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) firmly rejected the prevailing narrative. “I applaud the Obama administration’s responsive and aggressive use of the drone program,” he declared, reaffirming the commander in chief’s authority to defend the country and questioning whether “unelected judges” had an appropriate role to play. Graham used the Osama bin Laden raid, conducted without Pakistan’s knowledge, to illustrate that foreign governments, even theoretical allies, cannot be easily trusted to capture potential terrorists. Senator Cruz’ reaffirmed the bipartisan mood in his closing remarks, however, expressly thanking Farea Al-Muslimi for what he called enormously compelling testimony.