Senator Richard Durbin faulted the Obama administration for failing to participate in what he described as the Senate’s first hearing on the use of unmanned aircraft for targeted killings of suspected terrorists.
Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, called on the administration yesterday to provide greater transparency about its use of armed drones as the White House declined to provide a witness for a hearing on the issue.
“I do want to note for the record my disappointment that the administration declined to provide witnesses to testify at today’s hearings,” Durbin said at a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, which he heads.
“In my view, more transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and our international community,” Durbin said.
President Barack Obama’s administration should provide more information “about its analysis of its legal authority to engage in targeted killings and the internal checks and balances involved in U.S. drone strikes,” Durbin said.
The White House has “been in regular contact with the committee about how we can best provide them the information they require,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said today in an e-mail.
Pressure has been building in Congress for the White House to lay out the legal foundation and rules that apply in conducting drone strikes, particularly against Americans suspected of terrorism overseas.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, made headlines last month by staging a 13-hour filibuster delaying the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director to win a pledge from the administration that it wouldn’t use drones to target Americans on U.S. soil without an imminent threat. As Obama’s former counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had been the architect and manager of drone policy.
Obama pledged in his State of the Union address in February to provide more information on drone policy.
“I recognize that, in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way,” Obama said. “So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
The panel’s top Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said he was disappointed by the absence of an administration participant at the hearing, particularly because the session had been postponed a week to give the White House more time to produce one. Cruz accused Obama of seeking a “drastic expansion of federal power” in his use of targeted killings.
Retired Marine General James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in prepared remarks for the hearing that the administration should create an interagency task force to evaluate covert drone operations, while encouraging the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency to establish a process for declassifying those operations once they are completed.
“I am worried that we have lost the moral high ground,” Cartwright said at the hearing. “The current drone policy has left us in a position where we are causing more problems than we’re solving.”
While drones, made by companies such as General Atomics, of San Diego, and Northrop Grumman Corp., of Falls Church, Virginia, have been effective in killing suspected terrorists in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, they have drawn criticism for causing civilian casualties.
Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni youth activist and freelance journalist who studied in the U.S. for a year in high school, told the subcommittee his village in Yemen was struck by a U.S. drone about a week ago.
“There is now an intense anger at Americans,” Al-Muslimi said of his village. “The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.”
Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, said Congress should consider creating a specialized court to approve the targeting of U.S. citizens, similar to the court used to authorize intelligence surveillance warrants.
That proposal drew a rebuke from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said it would amount to a “breathtaking overstepping” by unelected judges over military operations.
Rosa Brooks, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, said the U.S. will pave the way for other governments to begin using drone strikes inappropriately unless it develops a clear set of rules to guide the policy.
Without clear rules and safeguards, “we’ve essentially handed a playbook for abuse to oppressive governments around the world,” Brooks said.