Authority for US Drone Strikes Questioned by Military Critics
WASHINGTON — America’s forever war in the Middle East officially ended last year but not the risk of terrorist attacks that prompted the U.S. military to strike back with drones, according to witnesses at a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Now the Senate is trying to decide whether to end or modify the policy that authorized death from the sky for combatants and civilians.
It’s the civilian death toll estimated as high as 2,200 over the past 20 years that interested the Senate Judiciary Committee during its hearing. They were spread among U.S. military drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
The testimony included harrowing stories of civilians who suffered grievous injuries or saw their family members killed.
One part of the testimony was a videotape of a civilian drone victim named Basim Razzo describing the serious injuries he suffered in his home.
“I looked to my left to my wife,” he said. “All I could see was debris.” He called his daughter’s name but received no answer.
Finally, his sister-in-law called out, saying, “Basim, everybody’s gone.”
Other victims were described as a young man standing outside an ice cream store, a boy playing soccer, an 11-year-old girl eating dinner with her family and a baby in her mother’s arms.
The U.S. military turned to drones for its strikes instead of armed soldiers partly because of the precision they allowed in hitting only targets that represented the greatest threats, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “I don’t think there’s much precision in the stories we’ve heard.”
At the same time, he and other senators agreed ending drone strikes would not end terrorism. U.S. military intelligence reports mentioned at the hearing said al-Qaeda has regrouped enough to strike American targets as soon as April.
“I think it’s naive to believe terrorism has an expiration date,” Durbin said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that although civilian casualties are an unfortunate consequence of all wars, the United States has no better alternatives than using drones in some circumstances.
“If they could kill us all … they would,” Graham said. “Afghanistan is a breeding ground for another attack on our country.”
He added, “It’s just not if we’re going to be attacked, it’s when and how much damage is going to be done.”
It’s the circumstances that determine when the U.S. military uses drones that consumed most of the discussion at the hearing.
The legal authority for drone strikes is derived from the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a joint resolution approved by Congress in 2001, shortly after al-Qaeda slammed commercial aircraft into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
The AUMF granted the president authority to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against persons he determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or assisted the attackers.
Since 2001, four presidents interpreted the AUMF authority to extend beyond al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS to other groups and locations.
The list of groups that could be targeted under the AUMF is classified as a military secret. However, the news website Business Insider reported in 2017 that the U.S. military has used the AUMF to justify military deployments in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, the Philippines, Somalia and Yemen.
The only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF in 2001 was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who is now in her 12th term in the U.S. House. She criticized the authority as a blank check to wage war.
Legal and international policy advisors who testified at the Senate hearing raised alarms about the potential for the AUMF to be abused if lawmakers do not properly monitor military deployments and drone strikes.
After 20 years of missiles raining down on military targets, “Drone strikes are the face of America,” said Hina Shamsi, a New York-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The counts of the civilian death toll were compiled by nonprofit organizations such as the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The ACLU is representing family members of 10 civilians killed in an August 2021 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. military personnel said they were trying to target ISIS-K combatants they believed were preparing a terrorist bombing.
Shamsi said it was time for Congress to revise the AUMF to avoid unnecessary casualties.
“This is an opportunity to rein in these powers,” she said.
Stephen Pomper, policy chief for the Washington-based International Crisis Group public policy foundation, said secrecy surrounding the authority for drone strikes created too much risk for misconduct. He suggested tightly written policy guidelines and more public transparency over the military authority.
Without better safeguards, “It might cause the United States to be overextended militarily,” he said.
Tom can be reached at email@example.com
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