Skip to main content

Congress Deliberated Something Yesterday?

The Senate debates the use of unmanned drone strikes.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


Public opinion of the U.S. Congress is so low (Gallup had it at 15 percent approval last week) anything but pure party politics can feel unexpected from the institution. Yesterday's Senate hearings on the use of unmanned "drone" aircraft for targeted assassinations were an astonishing example.

Most attention on the hearing has focused on the unlikely testimony of Farea Al Muslimi, the 22-year-old son of a hardscrabble farmer and an illiterate mother. Al Muslimi's town in rural Yemen was hit by a U.S. drone strike less than a week ago. (He's written a version the experience in an article for Al Monitor, here.)

Al Muslimi told a Senate Judiciary sub-committee he had become an "Ambassador for the United States" after returning from a State Department study abroad program. Then he described last week's drone strike turning his village against the U.S. in the time it took a missile to explode.

The testimony caught on in international relations circles yesterday, and has hit some mainstream media—The Huffington Post highlighted it.

It's still a stretch to say the testimony reached a wide enough audience to test Al Muslimi's closing thoughts:

I believe in America and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the U.S. airstrikes have caused and how much they are harming efforts to win hearts, minds and [unclear] in Yemen and hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program.

(Aside: If that line, "I believe in America," feels familiar, it is.)

The five other people who gave testimony at the hearing—a retired Air Force Colonel; a General; two law professors; and terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, notably the last American journalist to interview Osama bin Laden—received less media attention yesterday. But a look at the transcripts gives the impression of a thoughtful exchange among the panel, as if an actual debate had somehow broken out on Capitol Hill.

Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks spoke to the legal challenges of the drone program:

 ...drone technologies enable the United States to strike targets deep inside foreign states, and do so quickly, efficiently, and deniably. As a result, drones have become the tool of choice for so-called targeted killing”—the deliberate targeting of an individual or group of individuals, whether known by name or targeted based on patterns of activity, inside the borders of a foreign country. It is when drones are used in targeted killings outside of traditional or “hot” battlefields that their use challenges existing legal frameworks.

Law is almost always out of date: we make legal rules based on existing conditions and technologies, perhaps with a small nod in the direction of predicted future changes. As societies and technologies change, law increasingly becomes an exercise in jamming square pegs into round holes. Eventually, that process begins to do damage to existing law: it gets stretched out of shape, or broken. Right now, I would argue, U.S. drone policy is on the verge of doing significant damage to the rule of law.

Compare that to retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally. McSally doesn't argue Brooks' point. Rather, she argues that if an attack is going to happen, then drones are by far the best way to avoid a bomb hitting anything—or anyone—other than the target.

Unlike other platforms, the RPA ["Remote Piloted Vehicle"] platform enables commanders, analysts, and legal experts to monitor the target area in all phases of the targeting process with the ability to abort the strike if the target moves or civilians enter the area. This oversight is unprecedented. As a comparison, during a close air support mission in Afghanistan with A-10s from my squadron, rules of engagement were set and final decisions on weapons release were left with the enlisted ground controller supported by the Lieutenant or Captain pilot above, both of which are under stress due to the complexity and danger of combat situations. For targeted strikes of fleeting targets in low air defense threat environments, an RPA is the best platform to choose to ensure precision, persistence, flexibility, and minimize civilian casualties.

That brings us to Bergen, who provides a statistical picture of the victims. Citing a New America foundation study he in part ran, Bergen testified that"between 454 and 637 non-militant individuals" died in U.S. drone strikes just in Pakistan between 2004 and now. Of those, he estimated between 258 and 307, or just over 10 percent of the total number of people killed by drones in Pakistan, were civilians. He concludes with an echo of Al Muslimi's account:

To what extent has the tactic of using drone strikes overwhelmed the broader strategic objectives of the United States? For instance, have the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan all really been necessary? If the cost of the drone program in Pakistan, whose victims are largely lower-level members of the Taliban, is the increasingly hostile view of the U.S. now prevalent among the 180 million citizens of Pakistan—a country with nuclear weapons and the second largest Muslim country in the world—is that cost too high?