For almost a decade, largely in secret and with almost no public transparency or oversight, drone strikes by the United States have killed thousands of people in areas far from the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. On Tuesday, the Senate held its first public hearing on U.S. drone strikes and targeted killings. Noticeably absent was any official from the Obama Administration who could provide Congress and the American public with some real answers.
Concerns over drones go beyond the narrow question of whether and under what circumstances the United States can target American citizens, which several Senators focused on at the hearing. The more pressing, far-reaching question is the power of the President of the United States to conduct secret wars and kill people in areas outside of a traditional battlefield.
Earlier this month, a broad coalition of 10 major human rights and civil liberties groups, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and my organization, the Open Society Foundations, issued a joint statement calling the legality of United States drone strikes into question. Some of the basic facts we think the American public is entitled to know include:
How many people have been killed and wounded as a result of drone strikes and how many civilians? What are the existing processes to prevent and mitigate harm to civilians? What are the criteria used to determine civilian and "militant" status? What evidence is considered sufficient to kill individuals or groups whose identities are not known? What groups does the United States believe it can target as "associated forces" of al-Qaeda and why? In what countries is the United States conducting drone strikes? On what legal basis is it using military force in those countries? What is the legal basis for killing people using drones?
What we do know about the drone strikes makes obtaining answers to these questions all the more urgent.
Drone strikes are not clean and costless. The Open Society Foundations has interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims of these attacks and confirmed civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan. In June 2011, witnesses told us that a drone strike on a guest house killed not only militants, but several civilians nearby, including a 12-year-old boy. "Our whole tribe was angry over his death because he was still a child," one witness exclaimed. Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni activist who testified at the Senate hearing yesterday spoke powerfully of the civilian casualties from drones in his country -- and the outrage such deaths provoke.
The administration, meanwhile, has dismissed claims of civilian deaths and at one time denied that there had been any civilian harm at all. This only compounds the anger felt in affected communities.
Drone strikes are not just targeting high-level al-Qaeda leaders who threaten the United States homeland, as statements by U.S. officials often suggest. In fact, the United States doesn't even know the names of many of those killed in drone strikes. In Pakistan, for example, its reported that the bulk of CIA drone strikes are "signature strikes," which kill individuals or groups based on a checklist of suspicious behavior and circumstances -- not because they've been identified as high-level leaders.
Drone strikes are a major political flashpoint in countries like Pakistan. Beyond whatever military advantage they offer, these strikes fuel hyper-nationalist, anti-American rhetoric that strengthens the hand of extremists and undermines vital relationships.
The more the American public learns about the significant legal, policy, and national security ramifications of drone strikes, the less it approves of them. A recent survey of public polls by Rethink Media found that support in the United States for drone strikes dropped, in some cases significantly, when concerns regarding legality and civilian casualties were raised.
Last year on The Daily Show, President Obama said that a "legal architecture" is needed to rein in the powers that he, as Commander-in-Chief, and future presidents have to wage war using drones, and that he needs "congressional help in order to do that."
As senators from both sides of the aisle lamented, Tuesday's hearing was yet another missed opportunity for the Obama Administration to work with Congress to do so. The president, in his second term, is focused on his legacy. Unfortunately, secretive drone warfare and targeted killing appears to be higher on the list than public accountability and putting in place the legal constraints the president knows we need.