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One Step Closer to Meaningful Oversight of International Targeted Killing

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On Tuesday, April 23, 2013, Congress publicly discussed the implications of targeted killing abroad for the very first time. Senator Richard Durbin (IL) convened a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, entitled "Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing." Military leaders, experts and first-hand witnesses testified to their perspectives on the U.S. drones program. The conversation was enlightening, but it must be the beginning of a longer discussion and review of the impact of these practices overseas.

The hearing established that the drones issue is not about the rights of American citizens alone but about the rights of people around the world. The testimonies offered, and many of the questions asked, served as poignant reminders that decisions made in Washington are felt around the world. With such global influence, it is critical that U.S. leaders consider the ethics and strategic necessity of its actions abroad.

This conversation made clear that targeted killing is highly problematic. The testimony of Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and journalist, provided a first-hand account of how drone strikes wreak havoc abroad. He described in poignant detail how drone strikes in his home country, in his home town no less, have upended local communities and killed civilians. The United States, of course, neither acknowledges their suffering nor provides compensation. Their use has led the U.S. to, as General James Cartwright testified, "cede[d] the moral high ground."

Not only do targeted strikes present humanitarian and ethical concerns, but they present strategic problems as well. Concern for blowback, the boomerang effect when actions affecting others have unexpected, harmful consequences, was shared by all but one of the witnesses. Several of the examining Senators asked questions about the potential for such reprisals from targeted killings and listened solemnly as al-Muslimi related how destructive drone strikes turn Yemeni public opinion against the United States. There is not only worry that these tactics are fueling the flames of anti-Americanism, but several of the witnesses shared concerns regarding the precedents the U.S. is setting for the use of drones in a world where the proliferation this technology is accelerating.

We also learned from this hearing that there is near-unanimous consent for a constructive review of these policies. From Rosa Brooks, law professor at Georgetown University, fellow at the New America Foundation and former Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to Colonel Martha McSally of the U.S. Air Force, all of the witnesses highlighted their willingness to examine the legal and procedural rules surrounding targeted killing. All of them highlighted their belief that it is critical to increase oversight, to thoroughly vet those being targeted, and to reduce civilian casualties as much as possible. Even those witnesses who supported and spoke to the virtues of drones favored the codification of a better review process, a larger oversight role for Congress and a court for reviewing the legality of conducted attacks and for appropriately compensating the families of victims. While these measures would not end U.S. targeted killings abroad altogether, they could rein in some of the program's worst offenses, more accurately define and protect civilians, and reduce the total number of strikes -- particularly signature strikes based on observed behavior rather than intelligence reviews.

This groundbreaking hearing could be the first step in maturing the national dialogue on drones. In recent months, members of Congress have made public statements, held hearings, introduced and sponsored legislation and written letters to the administration challenging the federal government's right to deploy drones to infringe upon the rights of U.S. citizens at home or abroad. Finally, the scrutiny is shifting to the administration's opaque counterterrorism policies across the world. Congress should use this eye-opening discussion as the starting point to further question the drones program: hold another hearing; introduce legislation; and let the administration (whose decisions to neither provide a witness at the hearing nor make public the remaining Department of Justice memos was well noted) know that it is just as concerned about the ethical and strategic implications of targeted killing. With this hearing we are one step closer to meaningful transparency and accountability. We must move quickly to take the next.