This is slightly adapted from a presentation given at a Congressional briefing on drone strike policy on November 16, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
I want to talk about what Congress could do about drone strikes in the next one to two years.
To begin with, some political context, as I see it.
First, I don’t think anyone will argue with me if I say that for the last ten years, Congress has done very little.
Second, I think it would be extremely helpful if Congress would do something. I think Congress doing something is intrinsically important in itself, in addition to whatever the thing is. The reason is that the media, the public and the administration take cues from what Congress is talking about. If Congress isn’t talking about something, then it’s perceived as not very controversial. More people would contact Congress if we had a vehicle for them to contact Congress about.
Third, I don’t think it’s as hard for Congress to do things on this as some people seem to think. There’s a kind of conventional wisdom that Congress can’t do anything because no one cares because no US soldiers are being killed by the policy. I think this conventional wisdom is completely wrong. No US soldiers are being killed in Honduras, and yet,100 members of Congress are willing to sign letters about human rights in Honduras, and these letters get press and pressure the administration. No US soldiers are being killed in Bahrain, but members of Congress are willing to sign letters about human rights in Bahrain, and these letters get press and pressure the administration. Conversely, plenty of US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan before 2009, and Congress didn’t do much about that. So, whether or not American soldiers are being killed is not as decisive as some people seem to think.
Fourth, there’s another conventional wisdom that Congress can’t do anything because most Americans support the policy. But in fact, most Americans have no idea what the policy is, so to say that they support it is kind of meaningless. To the extremely limited extent that the administration has deigned to share information publicly, it has made two central claims: that drone strikes are narrowly targeted on top-level terrorist leaders, and that civilian casualties have been extremely rare. The record of independent reporting suggests that these two claims are, as President Obama might put it, the biggest whoppers of the drone strike policy. So, if the public believes that it supports the policy, what the public is in fact supporting is a policy whose only official public notice has been two big whoppers, a policy that does not actually exist in reality on Planet Earth. When the American people find out what the real policy is, I am sure that they will not support it. This is why strategies to force an increase in transparency are key to reforming the policy.
Five, I think that a large part of the reason that not much has happened has just been a question of focus. Between 2001 and 2009, very little happened in Congress on the war in Afghanistan. People were focused on the war in Iraq. When troops were drawn down from Iraq and escalated in Afghanistan, people started to focus on Afghanistan, and Congress started taking action. Now that troops are being drawn down from Afghanistan, we have an opportunity to focus on drone strikes.
Sixth, Obama is re-elected. That’s done. That should create more political space. The shadow of the election will no longer be hanging over all deliberations.
Seventh, the issue has gotten much more press attention recently, by which I mean not just reporting on drone strikes, but reporting in detail on specific, particularly egregious and publicly indefensible aspects of the policy, such as attacks on rescuers.
Eighth: months ago, we got 26 signers on the Kucinich-Conyers signature strike letter, and that was without a lot of pushing from a lot of groups. (A policy permitting signature strikes, revealed by the Washington Post in May, allows drone pilots to fire on people based on behavior patterns – or “intelligence signatures” – without being required to know the person’s identity.) It looks like there are more folks ready to push now.
Ninth, it’s very likely to be more useful to have a lot of members do something more modest, than to have very few members do something profound. It’s more likely to get press; it’s more likely to produce the impression that the policy is controversial; it’s more likely to show that members care; it’s more likely to produce a change in policy. If we can win some changes in the policy, that will prove that the policy can be changed by outside pressure, and that will open space for further reform.
Tenth: therefore, in terms of potential Congressional action, we need to look for realistic, pragmatic things that we could do to reform the current drone strike policy by making it smaller. At least some of these things should be things that we can engage people outside the Beltway on, because that’s going to lead to a lot more public education and mobilization.
So, here are five ideas that we could push. Other ideas are circulating. I think the most important thing at this point is to develop a group of people who are committed to trying to do something realistic and useful. But to start the discussion, here are five ideas that I think are realistic and useful:
1. The Washington Post editorial board has called for the CIA to be taken out of the business of operating weaponized drones. Human Rights Watch made the same call a year ago and reaffirmed this call in April. The program would be declassified, the military is more transparent and accountable to US and international law than the CIA, and the CIA would refocus on its core competence and responsibility of intelligence and analysis. It is a dangerous conflict of interest for the CIA to be running a paramilitary program at the same time as it is responsible for analyzing, reporting to and advising the president on the impact of US policy. As CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus asked for the CIA to have more armed drones. A good first step would be for Congress to say no to this request. The next permanent head of the CIA faces a Senate confirmation hearing. The next head of the CIA could be pressed to oversee getting the CIA out of drone strikes completely as a condition of Senate confirmation.
2. It has been reported in the press and by independent researchers that the administration has targeted rescuers with “secondary” or “follow-up” strikes, and that these strikes have (predictably) killed civilians. Targeting rescuers is illegal under international law, regardless of whether it takes place in a legal conflict or not. The US ambassador to Pakistan has denied that the United States is targeting rescuers or engaging in secondary strikes. Congress could codify the US ambassador’s denial by stating that it is US policy not to target rescuers or engage in secondary strikes. Congress could also press administration officials to testify about this policy, on the public record. At the confirmation hearing of the next CIA head, senators could be urged to ask sharp questions about secondary strikes and attacks on rescuers, and be urged to use the confirmation process as leverage to press for ending attacks on rescuers and secondary strikes.
3. When we were in Pakistan on a recent delegation, the (then-acting) US ambassador acknowledged to us that the United States has an official count of the number of civilians it thinks have been killed in Pakistan, and that this number is classified. Congress could ask why this number is classified and press for it to be declassified. Shuja Nawaz of the nonpartisan policy think tank the Atlantic Council has called for the United States to make public a detailed account of the results of each strike, including any collateral deaths.
4. In Afghanistan, civilians who have been harmed by US military action can be compensated. There is currently no program in place to compensate civilians who have been harmed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, although according to the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Congress has already authorized and appropriated money that could be used for this purpose. The (then-acting) US ambassador to Pakistan acknowledged that there was no reason in principle the United States couldn’t do this; it was just a question of setting up a program and implementing it. Congress could indicate to the administration that it wants to see such a program in place. The existence of such a program would create an official address for civilian complaints and a public mechanism for adjudicating those complaints. It would also force the creation of a public count of civilian casualties and civilian harm.
5. Four of the “signatures” that the United States has reported to be using to target “signature” drone strikes (as opposed to “personality” strikes on known persons) are clearly illegal under international law: “Military-Age Male in Area of Known Terrorist Activity,” “Consorting with Known Militants,” “Armed Men Traveling in Trucks in AQAP-Controlled Area,” and “Suspicious Camp in AQ-Controlled Area.” (AQAP stands for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.) Congress could press the administration to say whether it is doing these things, and pressure the administration to stop doing them. Ending these signature strikes could be a price imposed for confirmation of the next CIA head.