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Congressional Progressive Caucus Holds Hearing on US Drone Policies

In a rare hearing held by leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), members displayed interest in providing oversight to national security policies and heard testimony on drone operations abroad, drone technology, executive and congressional authority for “targeted killings,” how strikes go beyond what is permitted under international human rights law and dangerous precedents being set by the United States government’s drone policies and program.

Peace and Security Task Force Chair Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) and CPC Co-Chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) were present to hear video testimony from Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni advocate and drone strike investigator. The CPC also heard testimony from: Adam Baron, a Yemen-based journalist; Christopher Rogers, a lawyer and advocate at Open Society who has investigated strikes in Pakistan for 3+ years; Naureen Shah, a lawyer and lecturer at Columbia University; Sarah Knuckey, a lawyer at NYU and Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions; Zeke Johnsen, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign; and Ron Dellums, former chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

The hearing was not broadcast by C-SPAN. A hearing on Benghazi aired earlier in the day but, apparently, a Progressive Caucus hearing on drones and warfare abroad was not worth finding a way to broadcast.

The CPC holds hearings so rarely that they apparently had no capability to enable access to a stream of the hearing on the CPC’s own website (like congressional committees do). However, some of the witness statements were provided to Firedoglake.

Below are links to copies of witness statements (and video of Shiban reading his testimony can be found at the bottom of the post):



Shiban told congressional members he wanted to explain what “the secret air war has meant to the people of Yemen.” He said strikes send a message that the “US either can’t or doesn’t bother to sift friend from foe.”

Last summer, a strike in Kashmir in southeast Yemen killed an anti-al-Qa’ida imam Salem bin Ali Jaber, and his 21-year-old nephew Waleed. Just days before he was killed the imam had denounced al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology.

I spoke to the imam’s relative Faisal, who said the family had feared Salem might be assassinated by militants. They had no idea he’d be killed by a US drone. And while Salem’s  family only want justice, others will certainly exploit this sad story and persuade desperate Yemenis that revenge is the only way.

He told another powerful story related to an attack that occurred on September 2, 2012. At least twelve civilians were killed “by US drones or jets” in a “botched attack on an alleged senior militant,” according to a summary by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Eleven died immediately. One person died from injuries. Three children were killed.

Shiban reported:

One young farmer we spoke to, Ahmed, lost both parents and his ten-year-old sister in the attack. The US government has not investigated these deaths. There is no public evidence it is even trying to count them. But even in a place as poor as Radaa, many villagers have a camera phone.

The farmers from Sabool showed us videos of people pulling charred bodies from the wreckage. They were scarcely recognizable. But besidesthe horror of it all, one thing struck me about the footage I watched. In it, you could see many Yemeni farmers gathered around the carnage filming exactly the same thing.

This is how stories of US injustice percolate through Yemen. Terrible images like those I saw can take on a life of their own. US aid reaches these areas rarely, if ever. What does the US  mean to these people now? A blasted car, and gruesome footage of dead families. [emphasis added]

Shiban highlighted how Yemen is currently in a “national dialogue,” having a kind of constitutional convention, but the “secret air war” threatens this process and the future stability of Yemen.

“To ordinary Yemenis, drones make a mockery of the National Dialogue,” he declared. “How can a normal citizen believe in a gradual political process while his village is being hit by air strikes? How can a Yemeni buy in to “dialogue” while his children fear going to school because of drones
hovering overhead?”

Sarah Knuckey stated in her testimony that the problem was not limited to “drones.” The prime concern is the “opaque and unaccountable manner in which drones and other weapons have been used to carry out killings, around the quality of intelligence relied on to inform targeting decisions, unaccounted for civilian harm, the undermining of international law, and whether current practices are effective strategy.”

The precision capabilities of drone technology “do not answer these substantive critiques of US practice,” she said.

Knuckey highlighted the sterility of certain terms used to describe killings that are occurring in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Describing what happens as the “targeted killing” of “high level” militants “can be misleading.”

…It can elide much of what is happening, including signature strikes (carried out based on patterns of behavior and not against individual named targets), “side payment” or “bargaining chip” strikes (carried out for other governments), and killings of many low-level alleged fighters. The term “targeted killing” also creates the false impression of minimal impact, when, in fact, the killings can have broad psychological, security, and economic effects on families and communities…

She also drew attention to the perception that “little is publicly known about strikes.” The Obama administration is withholding information from the public. Strikes are not easy to investigate and “far too little information is publicly available about most strikes.” But, for Pakistanis or Yemenis, “the strikes are not in the shadows.”

Numerous victims of strikes and the broader impacts of US drone warfare are out there and could educate anyone by sharing their experiences.

For example, in one well-known March 2011 strike in Pakistan which I have investigated, witnesses and family members claim that some 40 individuals were killed, most of them civilians. After an October 2012 Pakistan strike, journalists published detailed interviews with family members who said a 67 year old grandmother was killed, and a number of young children injured. Just last week in Yemen, an event was held in which numerous family members of those allegedly killed came forward.

Naureen Shah provided testimony on the limits of drone technology. Drone operators can be “hampered” by the “soda straw” effect, where they lose a “wider picture of the area—like viewing a small amount of liquid through a soda straw, instead of the entire glass,” and this increases the likelihood of civilian deaths.

Human intelligence can be unreliable in areas of poverty. “Stories abound in northwest Pakistan of families and rival groups using locator chips to have their enemies targeted and to settle personal vendettas. Use of local informants puts at risk entire civilian communities; suspicion of informants has led local armed militant groups to retaliate by torturing and killing local villagers.” And, according to Shah, foreign governments sometimes provide intelligence to kill enemies of their government. (This is what Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh would do so Houthi rebels would be eliminated.)

Shah went on to highlight how signature strikes target individuals “based on behavior.” Since US personnel cannot always be engaging with the population and will always lack an understanding of culture, “drone operators may identify what appears to be suspicious behavior, but may lack the contextual and cultural understanding necessary to properly analyze that behavior, or recognize evidence of innocence.”


The hearing was not broadcast, but Tarek B. Ismail, a Columbia Law School counterterrorism and human rights fellow, did exceptional live tweeting of the hearing that can be found here.

Representative Jerrold Nadler opened the hearing by saying he had seen legal memos justifying “targeted killings” and he had not seen a principled basis for going to war under international law.

Ellison asked what witnesses thought Congress should do. Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International recommended repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Shah suggested having the Defense Department provide regular post-strike assessments. Chris Rogers of the Open Society Foundation urged Congress to demand more transparency.

Following answers, Ellison posed the question of whether it mattered if the Pentagon or CIA should be the sole department or agency that conducts strikes.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky asked why having a “targeted killing” court modeled off the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that reviews federal law enforcement surveillance requests would not be a good idea. Johnson answered, “If there’s time for a court, it shows that you’re not following the law.”

Schakowsky told witnesses she would ask the “intelligence committee” five to ten questions they might have but said, “I may not be able to share the answers.” (Then, is it even worth bothering?)

Rep. Jim Moran was troubled that the US has decided to allow exports of drones to 66 countries. He added something to the effect that America should have a policy that is not subject to just the people at the control board but reflects the country’s principles and values.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee told witnesses she had decided that there should be concern a “miracle technology” could overcome us. She later added that some of matters raised were of “deep urgency.”

The issue of the AUMF was raised by Lee, who was the sole vote in the House of Representatives against it when it passed after the 9/11 attacks. She suggested the AUMF had been used “fifty times” to stretch the military authorization in ways that those who voted for it never envisioned.

“We cannot have this blank check, which allows for perpetual war in perpetuity. And that’s what we have now,” Lee stated.

Here’s video of Baraa Shiban’s testimony for the Progressive Caucus.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."