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Government, Politics & Issues

Drone wars: Do 'targeted killings' undermine 'hearts and minds' counterterrorism efforts?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON -- In his remote Yemeni village, young Farea al-Muslimi considered himself to be America's biggest booster. He had spent a year at a California high school and was awarded a U.S. scholarship to study at one of the Middle East's top universities.

But in mid-April, a missile fired by an American drone struck his village -- an explosion that "terrified thousands" in the area and, he said, will likely damage this country's efforts to win over the hearts and minds of people in the fight against terrorism in the region.

"The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston . . . tore your hearts and also mine," al-Muslimi told a Senate Judiciary hearing chaired by U.S. Sen. Dirk Durbin, D-Ill. Even though the "targeted killing" reportedly succeeded in eliminating a suspected terrorist, al-Muslimi said, the drone attack alienated innocent townsfolk.

"What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America."

The hearing by Durbin's constitution subcommittee -- "Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterrorism Implications of Targeted Killings" -- was the first Senate hearing to focus on the legal justifications for targeted killing and the proper "due process" protections for U.S. citizens overseas.

"The use of drones has, in stark terms, made targeted killing more efficient and less costly, in terms of American blood and treasure. There are, however, long-term consequences -- especially when these air strikes kill innocent civilians," Durbin said.

"That's why many in the national security community are concerned that we may undermine our counterterrorism efforts if we do not carefully measure the benefits and costs of targeted killing."

In the 11 years since the first "targeted killing" by a CIA drone, more than 350 drone strikes have been authorized by the U.S. government in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, independent groups say.

Various outside organizations estimate the cumulative death toll at 2,000 to 3,500 people. While the administration of President Barack Obama contends that civilian casualties from the bombings have been "exceedingly rare," outside groups have estimated the bystander toll at between 260 and 880 civilians, with the number of non-militant casualties declining since 2010.

Among the victims have been four U.S. citizens, one of whom was targeted and three of whom were killed accidentally.

Durbin said al-Muslimi's testimony "provides a chilling example of how these strikes can undermine our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the very people we are relying on to provide us intelligence and ultimately be our allies.

"Are we trading short-term tactical success of killing individual targets for long-term strategic failure by sowing widespread discontent and anger?" Durbin asked.

Retired U.S. Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007-2011, said he is "worried that we have lost the moral high ground" in some regions. "I believe that in several areas around the world that current drone policies have left us in a position where we are engendering more problems than we're solving."

In his testimony about conflicting statistics on drone attacks, Peter Bergen, director of the New America Foundation's national security program, also questioned whether the large number of drone strikes in Pakistan has damaged U.S. credibility there. He asked:

"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?" 

But the use of “remotely piloted aircraft” (the Pentagon’s preferred term for drones) had its defenders as a military tactic. Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who led the military oversight and planning for RPAs in Africa from July 2007 to April 2010, explained in her testimony why the weapons are often preferable to sending in bombers or cruise missiles. 

"Once a decision has been made that it is legal and wise strategy to conduct a targeted strike, the RPA platform is usually the hands-down best choice to maximize precision, persistent intelligence, responsiveness, and oversight by commanders/intelligence experts/legal experts," McSally said.

"It also has the benefit of minimizing civilian casualties at with risk of U.S. casualties and at relatively low cost."

Obama administration declines to send witness

Even though Durbin is one of Obama's closest allies on Capitol Hill, the administration declined to send a witness to testify at the hearing. Durbin said he was "disappointed" by that decision and called for more public discussion and information on the drone-war issue.

"In my view, more transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and our international community," Durbin said.

More specifically, Durbin said the administration "should provide more information about its analysis of its legal authority to engage in targeted killing, and the internal checks and balances involved in U.S. drone strikes. And the administration must work with Congress to address a number of serious, challenging questions."

While Durbin said the Justice Department had allowed Judiciary Committee members to read memos on the targeted killing of Americans, he said the department also "should provide the committee with its memos on the targeted killing of non-Americans as well. And make public the legal analysis contained in those memos without revealing any intelligence sources."

Some of those questions came up during the hearing, such as:

  • Is it legal to use drones not just in war zones like Afghanistan, but also to target terrorist suspects in places where the U.S. is not involved in active combat, such as Somalia and Yemen?
  • What is the legal definition of a combatant in the conflict with al-Qaeda?
  • What is this country's moral and legal responsibility to acknowledge its role in targeting killing, and make amends for unintended destruction and loss of life?

Both liberal and conservative groups have advocated tougher oversight of the U.S. government's use of armed drones outside of conventional battlefields.
Concerns about U.S. citizen deaths resulting from drone attacks -- and the potential of using drones for "targeted killings" within this country under certain circumstances -- prompted a Senate filibuster in March, led by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over the nomination of John Brennan, a former overseer of the targeted killing program, to be CIA director. Brennan was eventually confirmed.

At last week's Senate hearing, conservative U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. -- who had taken part in the Paul-led filibuster -- expressed concern that some of the drone attacks may have been counter-productive because they killed lower-level militants who, if they had been captured and questioned, might have provided intelligence on possible terrorist plots.

But Cruz added that "the real scope of this hearing and of the concern is on the scope of federal power."

Showing that the drone wars issue has led to strange bedfellows among senators, liberal U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a former television comedian, quipped: "You know we’re in strange territory when Sen. Cruz and I have the same questions" about drones.

Meanwhile, one of Obama's toughest Senate critics, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted "to applaud the Obama administration for, I think, an aggressive and responsible use of the drone program, particularly in parts of the world where we don’t have ground forces."

Graham said he liked the concept of greater transparency in the drone "targeted killing" program, but he criticized a proposal, advocated by some legal scholars, to establish a special court to approve targeting decisions before they are carried out.

"If you want to talk about transparency, count me in," said Graham. But he added, "count me out" when it comes to allowing "a bunch of unelected judges" to make wartime decisions.

When Durbin asked whether transparency is impossible in some highly
classified situations, Cartwright said "I would say challenging, but not impossible.

"In other words, it is not necessary to provide the 'secret sauce' to provide an understanding of why you are doing what you are doing, how you're making the decisions, and why they are necessary. And that you've reviewed alternative choices in that decision process."

Cartwright told senators that the White House should set up a task force to evaluate the manner in which secret drone strikes are assessed, the effectiveness of precautions to avert civilian casualties, and the impact of such casualties on communities. He suggested that an unclassified version of the group’s report should be made public. 

Durbin recalls the two votes in 2001 that authorized the use of force on the war on terror: one authorizing the Afghanistan invasion, which he backed, and the other authorizing the invasion of Iraq, which he and 22 other senators opposed.

"At the time, though, I don't think there was a single senator who would say they envisioned, 12 years later, that we would be ending the longest war in our history and that we had created an authorization for an ongoing warlike effort" against terrorists.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, praised Durbin at a conference on Wednesday for inviting al-Muslimi to testify about “the human consequences of targeted killing operations in Yemen” and to discuss the backlash against this country for authorizing such strikes.

“We need to hear more from the people who are actually impacted” by drone strikes “to inform what might otherwise be sterile legal arguments,” Shamsi said. She called for much more transparency in the U.S. “targeted killing” program and what steps are taken to avoid civilian casualties.

“As a legal matter, I don’t think drones are per se unlawful,” Shamsi told a gathering organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project.

“But as a policy matter, they raise profoundly important questions because they are easier to use without risk to U.S. forces and are able to be used in places where we are not otherwise at war,” as explained to the American public.

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