John Brennan Confirmation Battle Stirs Drone Strike Controversy

03/07/2013 12:19 pm ET | Updated Mar 07, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The battle over the confirmation of John Brennan to be the next CIA director entered a final phase Wednesday as a cadre of senators, led by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, shifted the spotlight to a shadowy piece of the nominee's legacy: the Obama administration's use of drone strikes.

"To be bombed in your sleep? There's nothing American about that," said Paul, who began filibustering Brennan's nomination on Wednesday and finished in the early hours of Thursday morning. "There's nothing constitutional about that." Civilian casualties are central to the debate over the use of drones, because public support hinges on the false belief that the weapons kill with surgical precision. If the public were aware of the human toll of the policy, opposition would be widespread, according to a series of HuffPost/YouGov surveys.

Noor Behram, a Pakistani photojournalist who lives in North Waziristan, has been documenting the human cost of U.S. drone policy for several years and said he "wants people to know" what the weapons have wrought. The photographer provided photos to documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, in Pakistan doing research and interviews for his forthcoming documentary, "UNMANNED: America's Drone Wars," in fall 2012. Some of Behram's photos are used to illustrate this article.

Some Behram kept to himself, thinking they are "so horrific he didn't want anyone to see them," Greenwald told HuffPost. "So we're seeing the ones he felt were painful, but not so stomach-turning it'd be impossible to look at them."

Senators for weeks have used the Brennan nomination to press the Obama administration on its internal -- and until last month secret -- legal rationale for a program of extrajudicial targeted killing, including, in at least one case, of an American citizen.

A leaked outline of the administration's legal rationale, published in February by NBC News, exacerbated the problem by highlighting the administration's wide claim to power and a loose interpretation of the concept of "imminent threat."

After the administration finally agreed to let the senators on the Intelligence Committee examine the entire set of legal documents, the committee voted on Tuesday to forward Brennan's nomination to the full Senate.

But on Wednesday, as the nomination came to the floor of the Senate for what seemed to be a perfunctory confirmation vote, Paul announced that he would filibuster.

In the course of what ended up being a 13-hour-long speech, with an assist from allies including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Paul discussed the range of drone strikes that have been reported, and asked for President Barack Obama to clearly articulate the limits of his power to use drones to kill, including within American borders.

"I can't ultimately stop the nomination," Paul said. "But what I can do is try to draw attention to this, and try to get an answer."

To illustrate his case, Paul raised the little-discussed practice of signature strikes: the type of drone strike in which no specific individual is identified, but rather a target is chosen based on the observed behavior, or "signature," of people on the ground.

"The Wall Street Journal reported and said that the bulk of the drone attacks are signature attacks," Paul said. "They don’t even know the name of the person. A line or a caravan is going from a place where we think there are bad people to a place where we think they might commit harm and we kill the caravan, not the person. Is that the standard that we will now use in America?"

Newspaper reports have identified signature strikes as the predominant type of drone attack. And because this type of strike targets behavior, such as clustering in groups, rather than individuals, it is prone to kill civilians.

A study last year by human rights researchers at Columbia University found that signature strikes make reliable tallies of the drone civilian death toll impossible to count. Even without deaths, the report added, the practice results in "constant fear" among citizens in Pakistan and Yemen, since they can never reliably know if their "behavior will get him killed by a drone."

Children have been traumatized by this experience, researchers have reported -- both by witnessing drone strikes and by living where they are common and seemingly random occurrences.

Administration officials, Brennan chief among them, have denied that drone strikes result in civilian deaths, in part by relying on a metric that considers every military-age male to be a combatant unless definitively proven otherwise.

"Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq," Brennan told The New York Times in 2011, in response to a story about the drone program.

Behram's photos appear to show collateral deaths. Filmmaker Greenwald said Behram did not ask for payment for his photos, but was motivated to end the drone strikes, and has shared the photos with other media outlets and nonprofit organizations. Wired.com previously published a set of his photos.

"It's a classic situation of somebody seeing something that is deeply troubling and deciding to do something about it," Greenwald said. "He just wants people to know. For a long period of time the CIA and an unfortunately a large amount of the press were just taking the handouts saying, 'Seven Militants Were Killed Today,' 'Nineteen Militants Killed Today,' with no backup whatsoever. And what Noor wanted to do was say, 'No, that's not the full story. These were kids who were not terrorists.'"

Greenwald said he met with Behram in Islamabad and was prevented by the military from entering Pakistan's tribal area. He said Behram told him in videotaped interviews that photographing drone victims took a toll on his health.

"Initially, it was extremely hard for me to see parents talking about their children and weeping over their dead bodies and taking pictures," Behram said in the interview, a translated transcript of which was provided to HuffPost. "Local people compare a drone attack with that of slapping someone in darkness who does not know where it will hit."

Behram said that the arbitrary nature of the drone strikes has spread fear throughout the community. "My daughter Nimra is severely affected and she starts weeping even [when] she hears a minor sound of closing the door. I live in Dan-e-Darpa Khail area and we have more than fifteen drone strikes only in our area," he said.

This year, Behram was elected as president for the Tribal Union of Journalists, which is the representative body of journalists in the tribal region of Pakistan.

According to a HuffPost/YouGov survey of a random sampling of 1,000 Americans, 54 percent of respondents support killing people suspected of being high-level members of al Qaeda, while 18 percent oppose the idea. That drops to a 43 percent-27 percent margin if the suspect is an American citizen, but in both cases opposition is low.

But some real ambivalence underlies that apparent consensus. When asked whether they would still back the program if they knew civilians were at risk, more people say they oppose than support it. Reports vary, but at a minimum, hundreds of civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The American public is also not supportive of targeting people simply because they are members of al Qaeda, rather than senior commanders. A New America Foundation report found that only 2 percent of the thousands killed by drone strikes have been high-level operatives.

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