WASHINGTON -- Democratic and Republican senators joined a former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday in urging the Obama administration to make public more information about its top-secret targeted killing program amid questions about the legality and effectiveness of hundreds of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.
“More transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and the international community” for drone strikes, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a key Obama ally and the chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The White House refused to send a witness to the Senate’s first open hearing on the issue despite President Barack Obama’s vow to be more forthcoming about a counterterrorism weapon that has become a despised symbol of U.S. foreign policy in many parts of the world.
“I am disappointed that the administration declined to provide witnesses to testify at today’s hearing,” Durbin said. His frustration was echoed by several other Democrats and Republicans.
The hearing came nearly 12 years after the United States launched its first drone strike, underscoring what some legal scholars and civil and human rights experts have criticized as insufficient oversight by Congress.
But the killings of four U.S. citizens – three of them accidentally – in Yemen and Obama’s appointment of John Brennan, his former counterterrorism chief and overseer of the targeted killing program, to head the CIA have increased pressure on lawmakers to examine the use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.
The program remains shrouded in secrecy. The administration insists that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare” despite a huge expansion in strikes under Obama. Independent studies put the number of strikes since 2001 at more than 360 and estimate that as many as 3,533 people, including up to 884 civilians, have died, the vast majority in CIA operations in Pakistan’s tribal area.
Earlier this month, McClatchy published a review of top-secret U.S. intelligence reports showing that at their height in 2010-2011, scores of CIA drone strikes killed hundreds of unidentified lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and “other” militants in Pakistan. The finding contrasts with the administration’s assertion that it targets only known “senior operational leaders” of al Qaida and associated groups involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks who are plotting “imminent” violent attacks on the United States.
In his opening statement, Durbin noted that the Constitution gives Obama the “unique responsibility to protect and defend our country.” His authority to do so, however, is based on the rule of law, “which has been abused during times of war,” Durbin said, an apparent reference to Bush administration detainee interrogation methods that many experts consider torture.
Moreover, while the CIA’s use of drones against al Qaida and other terrorist targets in remote locations has made targeted killing “less costly” because U.S. troops don’t have to be employed, “there are long-term consequences, especially when these airstrikes kill innocent civilians.”
“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,” Durbin said – a reference to concerns that civilian casualties have helped militant groups recruit new members.