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Drone issue creating unusual bipartisan alliances

As Congress wrestles with what, if anything, it can or should do about the Obama administration's use of drones to kill terrorists in Yemen and other nations, the controversy has created unusual political alliances.

At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution which examined President Obama’s drone policy, Sen. Al Franken, the liberal Democrat from Minnesota, noted that he's aligned with Texas conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on this issue: “You know we’re in strange territory when Sen. Cruz and I have the same questions” about Obama’s drone strategy.

Meanwhile Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’d been sharply critical of the Obama administration just a few hours earlier for its decision to not deem Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev an enemy combatant, lavished praise on Obama and his use of the unmanned aerial weapons.

“I want to applaud the Obama administration for, I think, an aggressive and responsible use of the drone program, particularly in parts of the world where we don’t have ground forces,” he told the hearing.

Cliff Owen / AP

Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, shakes hands with witness Farea al-Muslimi of Yemen, at the start of the hearing on drone use on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

Graham said Obama was “serious” and “thoughtful” and “I think he takes his responsibility, when it comes to targeting people, in a very commander-in-chief-like way.”

While the Boston bombing and the threat of domestic terrorism has, for a week at least, shunted the drone issue out of the spotlight, some members of Congress remain uneasy about Obama’s policy of using the unmanned vehicles to kill terrorist suspects. But it seems doubtful whether their worrying will lead to actual lawmaking which would limit Obama’s powers – such as the creation of a panel of judges to review particular targeted killings or revising the 2001 congressional authorization to use force.

Indicating that it wasn’t taking the hearing all too seriously, the Obama administration did not even send a witness to explain its position – which prompted subcommittee chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to say he was “disappointed.”

Durbin noted that he had voted for the 2001 authorization for use of military force, enacted a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The Obama administration cites that congressional resolution as its authority to use the drone strikes against terrorists from Pakistan to Yemen. But Durbin said, “I didn’t realize – and I don’t think that many members did – that we would be having this conversation 12 years later about Yemen, Somalia, even Pakistan. Maybe I should have been able to discern that, but I didn’t.”

The hearing about the legality of Obama’s drone policy also addressed the strategic questions of whether the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia were alienating people in those countries and inadvertently creating support for Islamic jihadists. “I am worried we have lost the moral high ground,” said retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And a Yemini who was partly educated in the United States, Farea Al-Muslimi, told the committee that drone strikes are making Yemenis hate and fear America. “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.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., compliments President Barack Obama's "thoughtful" handling of targeted unmanned aircraft strikes.

Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, a veteran pilot who served for 22 years and who was a Republican House candidate in Arizona last year, told the committee that remotely piloted aircraft (a term she prefers to “drone”) offer advantages over other weapons: they can linger over a target area for hours and are often superior to other means of lethal force such as artillery, jet fighters, or combat troops. There’s a “very fleeting moment” when a terrorist is in a particular spot and can be targeted. “You actually have the lawyers sitting side by side with you” as the decision is made to attack the target. “You can wait until the moment you have positive identification and all the criteria have been met,” she said.

Another witness, Peter Bergen, the director of the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program, told the committee that Obama had ordered six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan as President George W. Bush did during his eight years in office. He said there was only one drone strike in Yemen under Bush; there have been 46 ordered by Obama in Yemen. 

And Bergen said it’s no longer the leaders of al Qaida or its affiliates whom Obama is targeting. “What was initially started as program to target high-level members of al Qaida has in a sense evolved – particularly in Pakistan -- into a kind of counter-insurgency air force.”

Despite the focus on the effects of the remotely piloted aircraft in places such as Yemen, inevitably the hearing reverted at points to members’ concern that a president might someday use a drone against an American citizen at home.

“We had a situation in Boston,” Franken noted, referring to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “We had a guy holed up in a backyard in a boat. And he by all accounts had explosives and they did send a robot to go in to take off the top off the boat. But isn’t it possible that we could see a situation in which we might want to take that person out in a different way – as odd as that is for me to ask?”

Franken also asked what was the difference – once the president and his aides choose a particular terrorist to be killed – between using a remotely piloted aircraft and using another weapon?

McSally replied that a remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, “gives you better precision with a smaller warhead.” When the United States sends in piloted jet aircraft or Special Forces, there may be greater risks. “The RPA gives us asymmetric capability where we don’t have to risk American forces – and that’s not a bad thing to not risk American forces….”

Another witness, George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin noted that “what matters is not whether we’re using a drone or a bomb or a plane -- or even a sword or dagger,” but whether the president has chosen the right target. 

But Rosa Brooks, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, said Obama was setting a bad example for the use of drones by leaders of other nations who want to wipe out their own political dissidents living in exile: “We have essentially handed a playbook for abuse to oppressive governments around the world,” she told Durbin.

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