Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and journalist whose village was bombed last week, was one of six witnesses who testified before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon about the effects and consequences of the Obama administration’s drone and killing program in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. The other witnesses included lawyers, journalists and former members of the military, many of whom were bothered by the program’s secrecy. Despite recent pledges by President Obama to increase transparency in how the government kills those it suspects of terrorism, the White House declined to send a representative to the hearing – the first on this topic in the Senate. The administration also failed to appear before a similar House panel in February.
The most significant aspect of the hearing, held by the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution, was al-Muslimi’s testimony – a rare first-hand account of the destruction that the killing program wreaks on the areas targeted by the United States. He described a recent strike on his village that killed five suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but also “terrified the region’s poor farmers.”
Al-Muslimi argued that the purported target of the strike, Hamid al-Radmi, who allegedly had ties to AQAP, was a well-known figure who could have easily been apprehended. “The Yemeni government could easily have found and arrested him,” al-Muslimi said in his opening remarks. “Even the local government could have captured him if the U.S. had told them to do so.”
Prior to the strike, al-Muslimi said, the central perception the villagers had of the U.S. was from conversations he had with them about the year he spent here during high school, which he described as “one of the best years of my life.” Later in his statement, he said, “now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.”
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who chairs the committee and called the hearing, and ranking member Ted Cruz (R-Texas) both expressed “disappointment” that the White House failed to send a witness. In his most recent State of the Union, Obama promised to “continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Micah Zenko, an expert who closely follows the U.S. killing program, highlighted the extreme secrecy Obama administration hides behind in a recent post. He noted wryly that new CIA head “John Brennan now tells policymakers to read earlier comments by John Brennan for any clarification” on how the program works.
Martha McSally, a retired Air Force pilot, suggested at the hearing that officials should use the phrase “remotely piloted aircraft” rather than drone, which she claimed was part of a propaganda campaign against the United States. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) quickly adopted McSally’s preferred phrase.
Other senators, including ranking member Cruz and Mike Lee (R-Utah), steered the discussion towards somewhat unlikely hypotheticals, such as whether the president could drone-strike a U.S. citizen sitting in a cafe in northern Virginia. Senator Lee and other members of the committee also at one point made ill-advised jokes about being sentenced to death for going over one’s allotted time – which in many ways perfectly illustrated how abstract this issue is for Congress. That al-Muslimi had minutes earlier described fearing for his life after hearing the buzz of a drone only made the Senators’ behavior more distasteful.
The Obama administration’s claims that it only targets high-level al-Qaeda operatives was also called into question. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation testified that only about 2 percent of those killed in Pakistan have been confirmed as high-level targets. McClatchy reported earlier this month that “the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.”
In a hearing that was at times frustrating, al-Muslimi’s words were a reminder that the U.S. killing program actually affects real people, even if those people aren’t U.S. senators. The next generation of Yemenis may well grow up with their perception of the United States significantly shaped by drones. “In Yemen, mothers used to say, ‘Go to sleep or I’ll get your father,'” he said. “Now they say, ‘Go to sleep or I’ll call the planes.'”