Six things you may not know about the killer drone controversy

National Constitution Center

The Obama administration’s use of weaponized drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas was under a Senate microscope this week, as six different witnesses revealed some interesting facts about the controversial policy.

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Senator Richard Durbin, an Obama supporter (on issues other than drones), chaired the subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

Durbin was openly disappointed that the Obama administration didn’t send a witness to talk about the secretive program.

“I do want to note for the record, my disappointment that the administration declined to provide a witness to testify at today’s hearings. I hope that in future hearings we’ll have an opportunity to work with the administration more closely,” he said.

Durbin also said he hoped the administration understood its newfound technological killing power “is still grounded in words written more than 200 years ago.”

Related Link: Read the complete testimonies

Political opponents Ted Cruz and Al Franken agreed with Durbin that the scope of the executive branch’s power was under question.

The administration says it has the power to undertake the drone tactics per a 2001 congressional resolution in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights has released the official testimony of the six witnesses, which show a cross-section of concerns and justifications about the program. here’s a brief look at what they said.

General James Cartwright

The retired general, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that drones are cheap, at an average cost of $4 million to $5 million, compared with a conventional jet fighter, at $150 million. They are also cheap to fly and have advanced optics.

“[They’re] not hard to see why military operations are significantly improved by this technology. Drones offer many advantages over other conventional forces in counterterrorism,” he said.

“Legitimate questions remain about the use, authorities, and oversight of armed drone activities outside an area of declared hostility,” he acknowledged. “While I believe based on my experience all parties involved in this activity have acted in the best interests of the country, as with other new technologies, adaptation of policy and law tends to lag implementation of the capability.”

Farea Al-Muslimi

Al-Muslimi, a Yemini activist who was partly educated in the United States,  told the committee how drone attacks hurt the reputation of the United States in his country.

“Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine,” he said.

Al-Muslimi said the drone attacks, especially those that killed innocent civilians, made his job as an advocate for America in Yemen “almost impossible.”

“Even when drone strikes target and kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating the many strategic problems I have discussed today,” he added.

Al-Muslimi also believes the United States should compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in the attacks.

Peter Bergen

The former CNN national security analyst is now at New America Foundation, a Washington think tank on security issues.

He testified that based on his foundation’s estimates, between 2,003 and 3,321 people were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and April 2013, with most of the fatal attacks undertaken by the Obama administration.

Many of those attacks, he said, were on low-level militants. There were differing estimates for civilian casualties.

Bergen also said much of the information about drones is out in public after years of questions.

“As of early 2013, the drone campaign was no longer Washington’s worst kept secret; it was, for all intents and purposes, out in the open. This new openness is a good thing. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed a century ago, ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”

Rosa Brooks

A Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Brooks said the United States needs to address legal and procedural issues.

“I believe that the president and Congress can and should take action to place U.S. targeted killing policy on firmer legal ground,” she said.

“In particular, we need to address the rule of law implications of U.S. targeted killing policy. Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate. 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.”

Colonel Martha McSally

Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally served for 22 years and is familiar with the tactics involved in drone attacks.

McSally said the use of drones can help due process in some ways: “You actually have the lawyers sitting side by side with you” as a drone remains in position, unlike conventional aircraft. “You can wait until the moment you have positive identification and all the criteria have been met,” she said.

“For targeted strikes of fleeting targets in low air defense threat environments, an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] is the best platform to choose to ensure precision, persistence, flexibility, and minimize civilian casualties,” she said.

McSally also quoted Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, the first general responsible for overseeing drones, about the advantages of using the aircraft.

“Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban–not U.S. ‘drones,” said Deptula, in a passage used by McSally in her remarks.

Ilya Somin

The law professor from George Mason University said that “serious constitutional and other problems arise if the U.S. government fails to take proper care to ensure that the use of drones is strictly limited to legitimate terrorist targets.”

Somin doesn’t have an issue with the Obama administration targeting senior terrorist leaders who are American citizens.

“Given the existence of a state of war, I believe that the Obama administration was correct to conclude in its recently released white paper that it is legal for the government to target U.S. citizens who are ‘senior operational leader[s] of al Qa’ida or an associated force,’” he said.

Somin said the “procedural safeguards” need to be established.

“What we can hope to achieve is an oversight system that greatly diminishes the risk of serious abuse: targeted killings that are undertaken recklessly or worse still–for the deliberate purpose of eliminating people who do not pose any genuine threat, but are merely attacked because they are critics of the government, or otherwise attracted the wrath of policymakers.”

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