by Jeremy Leaming
A Senate panel sought to shed some light on America’s drone war, which according to various reports by human rights groups has killed thousands of people, many civilians, in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and possible other sites abroad. The drone program launched during the administration of George W. Bush and escalated by the Obama administration has been shrouded in secrecy, and laden with controversy.
But increased coverage of civilian casualties of the drone strikes have helped spur more interest in the use of Reaper and Predator drones to hunt and kill suspected terrorists. Also a leaked “white paper” apparently summarizing a lengthier document produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), caught widespread attention for its strained analysis to provide the president legal cover for approving the killing of U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of having connections to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
Before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the hearing, as the first-ever, to “address the use of drones in targeted killing” and said that the DOJ had provided him with the full OLC memos on the targeted killings of American citizens overseas. He noted, however, that he wished the administration would provide all legal documentation on targeted killings involving non-Americans as well. (Click on image for archived webcast of hearing.)
At the outset, Durbin noted the president’s powers as Commander in Chief are constrained by the U.S. Constitution’s other principles, such as the protections of liberty, including due process. “At times in over the course of history our rules of law have been abused; when this occurs it challenges America’s moral authority and standing in the world.” Durbin also noted that civilian casualties related to the drone strikes can undermine the administration’s efforts to conduct an ongoing war against terrorism.
Human rights groups and at least one of the committee’s witnesses suggest that the nation’s moral authority and standing have already been compromised by the drone war.
Peter Bergen, with the New America Foundation, for example cited the significant escalation of the drone trikes and the public perception of those military actions in the places like Pakistan. “At this point, the number of estimated drone strikes from the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan – somewhere between 1,614 and 2,765 – is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration,” Bergen said in his written testimony before the committee.
Addressing public perception of the drone war, Bergen later noted polling last year in 21 countries “found widespread global opposition to the CIA drone program. Muslim countries such as Egypt (89 percent) and Jordan (85 percent) expressed high levels of disapproval, while non-Muslim countries that are close American allies also registered significant displeasure with the program – Germany and France respectively polled at 59 and 63 percent disapproval.”
Bergen, and another witness, Georgetown law school professor Rosa Brooks, however, highlighted that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes are hard to determine because of transparency. Brooks cited work by the New American Foundation, claiming that civilian casualties are “slightly lower” than those reported by human rights organizations.