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Senate Holds Hearing on Drones

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held ahearingyesterday on the use of drones by the U.S. military. The hearing, “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing,” drew witnesses to discuss the CIA's drone program and its use in counterterrorism efforts.

Witness Peter Bergen, director of the national security studies program at the New American Foundation, discussed a recent study the organization conducted on the U.S. drone program. According to the report, drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets have escalated in recent years. For example, drone strikes in Pakistan number up to 3,321 in the period from 2004 to 2013. Up to 2,765 of these occurred since President Obama took office. Another finding, said Bergen, is that the drone program has drifted from its original purpose—killing hard-to-capture al Qaeda and Taliban leaders—to killing those farther down in the organization. “The drone program has increasingly evolved into a counterinsurgency air platform, the victims of which are mostly lower-ranking members of the Taliban and lower-level members of al Qaeda and associated groups.”

Even those in favor of the drone program testified that the government should pursue policy that emphasizes increased oversight, strong metrics, and post-strike assessments. General (ret) James E. Cartwright testified that drones offer numerous advantages over conventional forces and that past accountability mechanisms have been sufficient. However, he also contends that the fluid nature of the war on terrorism has created new problems. “Legitimate questions remain about the use, authorities, and oversight of armed drone activities outside an area of declared hostility,” said Cartwright. “While I believe, based on my experience, all parties involved in this activity have acted in the best interests of the country, as with other new technologies, adaptation of policy and law tends to lag implementation of the capability.”

One witness, Farea Al-Muslimi, discussed a drone attack launched by the United States last week that hit his village in Yemen. The target of the attack, Hameed Al-Radmi, was visiting the village to meet with local leaders. Al-Radmi’s movements in the previous days were well-publicized within the country. In his testimony, Al-Muslimi noted that villagers all asked the same question: “Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could easily have been arrested.”