BY SPENCER ACKERMAN
04.23.13 6:50 PM
For the first time, the Senate heard from someone who lives in a village where U.S. drone strikes are believed to have killed civilians.
Farea al-Muslimi, who was born in the mountain village of Wessab and educated at a California high school, described a drone strike in the village that took place a week ago. His voice occasionally catching, al-Muslimi told a Senate judiciary subcommittee today that the target of the strike, Hameed Meftah, was well known to villagers, and could have been captured.
A “psychological fear and terror” has now taken ahold of his old neighbors, al-Muslimi said. “The drone strikes are the face of America to many.”
al-Muslimi — who actually livetweeted the strike, although he was not there — said the drone strikes have taken on a terrifying character that other weapons may not share. “The drones have made more mistakes than AQAP has ever done,” he said, using the acronym for al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate. Parents in Yemen now tell their children to hurry off to bed by saying they’ll call in a drone strike if they don’t. As human-rights groups have documented, the buzzing overhead of a Predator or Reaper engine as the flying robot hovers has a chilling psychological effect.
Sen. Richard Durbin, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that convened the hearing, asked al-Muslimi if Yemenis are aware that U.S. military and CIA drone strikes occur with the complicity of the Yemeni government. al-Muslimi replied that the question barely registers.
“On the ground,” he said, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is problematic.”
The hearing was apparently the first ever in the Senate to openly question the Obama administration’s targeted killing programs, especially as it applied to drone strikes. It built on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) recent 13-hour filibuster to protest the administration’s broad claims of executive authority over counterterrorism operations, including inside the United States. But while Paul’s effort largely concerned what might happen to American citizens accused of terrorism, al-Muslimi attempted to turn the debate toward the vastly larger cohort of non-Americans killed in drone strikes, missile strikes and commando raids far from declared battlefields globally. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently said he believed some 4,700 people have been killed by drones.
One option under discussion by legal scholars testifying before the panel was to create something resembling a court to review potential drone targets, either before or after the fact of the operations. (Graham objected strenuously.) Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, pointed out that Israel maintains one to prevent unchecked executive power. James “Hoss” Cartwright — a retired Marine general, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and leading figure in the targeted-killing effort — said the court idea might have merit.
“I am concerned we may have ceded some of the moral high ground in this endeavor,” Cartwright said, though he said he remained a supporter of the drone strikes.
Durbin became a rare senator to publicly consider “making amends to civilian victims of covert drone strikes, their families, and communities,” something the U.S. military has done in Afghanistan. He didn’t mention it, but such reparations would constitute a public acknowledgement that the strikes have occurred, something the U.S. has been reluctant to admit.
al-Muslimi said that reparations were imperative for undercutting the narrative al-Qaida presents about U.S. drones ravaging Yemeni civilians. “There has to be some sort of compensation — build a hospital or school,” he said.
After the hearing, Cartwright, the former senior Obama administration official involved in the targeted killing efforts, came up to al-Muslimi and shook his hand.