The Congressional Progressive Caucus held a recent hearing to discuss the implications of expanding the U.S. drone fleet of 7,000. Among the few critics of drone policies in Congress, members of the Progressive Caucus discussed the large number of civilians who have died as a result of U.S. drone strikes. According to a caucus report, the U.S killed 884 civilians in Pakistan, 15 killed in Somali, 94 have been killed in Yemen and a total of 5,164 people have been killed by this method so far.
Despite the concerns over human rights and civilian deaths, it’s full steam ahead for the Pentagon — calling for $40 billion in spending increases for medium- and long-range drones over the next decade. For legal experts and human rights advocates, Congress isn’t doing enough to rein in the war on terror abroad, including U.S. drone strikes.
“Congress should make it clear that the 2001 AUMF [Authorization for the Use of Military Force] does not give the president the power to use armed drones against people who were not involved in the 9/11 attacks and who are in countries not a war with the United States,” writes Marjorie Cohn, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, in a statement to Mint Press News.
Hindering congressional oversight of Obama’s preferred method to combat terrorism has been the growth of the drone manufacturing lobby, promising thousands of jobs and more than $2 million in campaign contributions to 60 members of Congress.
The war on terror does not include drones
“The Obama administration justifies its use of armed drones with reference to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the AUMF, Congress authorized force against groups and countries that had supported the terrorist strikes. But Congress rejected the Bush administration’s request for open-ended military authority ‘to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States,’” said Cohn, former president of the National Lawyers Guild.
Congress has placed limitations upon the Bush administration’s use of force and similarly restricted Obama with the passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), denying the president authority to expand the war on terror, including through drone strikes.
“Deterrence and preemption are exactly what Obama is trying to accomplish by sending robots to kill ‘suspected militants’ or those who happen to be present in an area where suspicious activity has taken place. Moreover, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, Congress specifically declared, ‘Nothing in this section is intended to … expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force [of September 2001],” Cohn adds.
It hasn’t slowed down the president, who has authorized dozens of strikes in Southeast Asia and the Middle East over the course of his two terms in office.
Congress drops the ball
Only recently has Congress sprung into action, bringing victims of U.S. drone strikes to testify before the Senate, a move praised by human rights organizations and activist groups. The recent testimony by Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist, was praised by human rights organizations seeking to highlight the destruction that drones have caused to civilians.
“If the media did more about telling the real stories of drone use, like we heard from Farea al-Muslimi, there would be more opposition to drones, said Medea Benjamin, co-director of Drones Watch and co-founder of CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement, to Mint Press News.
“I think it’s good that in this last year there has been more of a discussion in the media, but it’s mostly a sterile discussion rather than seeing pictures of drone victims, pictures of people hit by the shrapnel, hearing the stories from the grieving ones. I think if we heard more of that, the polls would paint a different story,” Benjamin said.
Indeed, most Americans admit to not following news stories related to drones. Benjamin and others believe it is because there is little honest, transparent coverage available to the public in the mainstream media. In a March 2013 Gallup Poll, 24 percent of respondents said that they did not follow the drone issue at all, with 25 percent saying they followed it “not too closely.”
Al-Muslimi, who relayed stories of a “father in Shuqra who held his four- and six-year-old children as they died in his arms” after a drone strike presented a rarely heard voice in Washington but reached a limited audience.
“Mr. al-Muslimi’s congressional testimony was compelling, but it was aired on C-SPAN 3, which is watched by very few people in this country,” Cohn said. “His testimony, and others like it, should be widely disseminated so that the American public understands the damage these drones wreak. It is only by bringing the images and stories of the victims to the public that we can have more than a superficial conversation about this travesty.”
For anti-drone advocates, it was a step in the right direction but inadequate when it comes to having outspoken advocates of diplomacy in Congress.
“I think Congress has been miserable on this issue. Our friends in the Progressive Caucus say ‘oh yes we don’t like this’ but they don’t do anything. Maybe once in a while eight of them will send a letter to Obama saying, ‘please abide by international law’ and that’s the end of it, Benjamin said.
Leading the small number of outspoken congressmen has been Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of the Progressive Caucus who spoke at the recent hearing about the need for more Congressional oversight.
“America ought to set an example for the world to follow on protecting civil liberties and respecting human rights. It’s time our actions live up to our values,” Rep. Ellison said. “This is a national security issue — we cannot allow drones to end up in the hands of our enemies or create a political rallying point for the very people who seek to harm us. Congress and the Obama administration should work together to write a legal framework that makes sure any drone use has adequate oversight, avoids civilian casualties and sets an example for the world to follow.”
Congressman Ellison declined Mint Press News’ request for an interview. Still, anti-drone advocates wish that members of Congress would do more to show their opposition.
“None of them [members of Congress] have gone with us up to the bases where the drones are being piloted. None of them step across the line to do civil disobedience. None of them have come to our events to speak out publicly. Look at all the progressive Democrats in the Senate who voted for the confirmation of John Brennan, every single one of the Democrats except for two,” Benjamin said.
The drone lobby?
Standing in the way of proper congressional oversight has been the burgeoning drone lobby, an emerging force contributing to Congressional campaigns.
“This is all about money when it comes down to it. The fact that there is an unmanned Aerial Systems Caucus in Congress says it all. It’s shameful when you look at the millions of dollars the industry spends on both lobbying and contributing to Congressional candidates,” Benjamin said
“You see the collusion between our elected officials and the drone industry,” Benjamin said.
Drones represent big money for manufacturers and local communities promised thousands of manufacturing jobs.
A recent study by the Teal Group, an aviation and defense consulting firm, estimated that global spending on unmanned aircraft will almost double over the next decade, from $5.9 billion annually to $11.3 billion. Most of that growth will be in the United States.
The same study estimated that the drone industry would create 23,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2025.
Political action committees affiliated with drone manufacturers donated a total of $2.3 million to the nearly 60 members of the bipartisan House Unmanned Systems Caucus, according to First Street Research. Seventy-seven percent of these donations went to Republicans.