Transcript: Q&A with Sen. Richard Blumenthal on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

Partial transcript of Q&A with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on the “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counter-Terrorism Implications of Targeted Killing”. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing was held on April 23, 2013:

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.):
…You know, I think we are wrestling with a lot of these profound questions and wrestling on a very bipartisan basis, as you’ve seen, because we’re struggling with issues not only of constitutional law but also of conscience and conviction and morality, not to mention the profound foreign policy implications that may be involved.

And I want to thank Mr. Al-Muslimi for giving us the insight into the chilling unintended consequences of possible mistakes in this area. And I have to assume they were unintended consequences because simply we have that faith in the good intentions of our military and of the decision-makers who are guiding this process.

But stepping back for a moment, one question on my mind is whether the rules applicable to drones – and they’re in the title of this hearing – call them unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely-piloted aircrafts – whatever they are called – whether those rules really should be fundamentally different than they are for any targeted strike?

Because, Colonel, as you’ve pointed out, when the decision is made to do a targeted strike, assuming that decision is justified by imminent threat or all of the other criteria, then we have a set of tactical weaponry at our disposal – there may be boots on the ground, fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, or artillery. And very often, remotely-piloted aircraft are more precise, quicker, and more reliable with less cost both in terms of collateral damage and potential threat to our own troops.

So I guess the question on my mind is should the rules be any different for this new form of weapon? The rules are obviously different for nuclear strikes in some sense and we’re developing rules for cyber warfare as Gen. Cartwright has made a point very aptly and powerfully.

But let me begin, Col. McSally and then perhaps to you, Gen. Cartwright. Knowing the nuts and bolts of this kind of weaponry, should the rules be any different for remotely-piloted aircraft, a term which I agree probably more aptly and accurately describes this kind of weaponry, than the other targeted strikes?

Colonel Martha McSally, United States Air Force (Ret.):
Thank you, Senator. And absolutely, I think the answer is no, the rule should not be different. A remotely-piloted aircraft is simply a tool to meet our objectives once we’ve decided that we want to meet those objectives and it’s legal to meet those objectives.

This discussion actually reminds me a little bit about after World War I when our pioneer of air power Billy Mitchell was trying to make the case that we could take out naval ships with air, and nobody could believe him and we thought that was ridiculous, and then he had to make that case.

And there was a whole lot of angst over using this new tool of air power in order to meet our objectives. And we eventually get to a point where we’re very comfortable using air power in certain circumstances versus ground forces versus naval gunfight in order to meet our military objectives.

I think this is a very similar transformation that we’re going through. This discussion and debate is all certainly worth having, and I think where we need to have our focus is the transparency on the legal argument and the transparency on the justification for our counter-terrorism strategy for use of lethal force and focus it there. And then keep this remotely-piloted vehicle discussion – remotely-piloted aircraft – as a tool that we’re using that is an asymmetrical advantage that we have, and if we’re in a fight, it’s okay to have an asymmetrical advantage. You don’t have to risk American lives if you need to use lethal force to meet your objective so why would we when we have the capability to do it in a way that is cheaper, more persistent, and less risk for American lives.

So I think the rule should not be different, and I think this discussion is worthy but I will also say our military process there are really two elements that we go through: One is how do we approve an individual to be an approved target? And then the second process is then what do you go through in order to actually get approval to strike and to conduct the strike. And so this is where I think we need to be focusing the discussion. This process right here you could also raise or lower the bar based on discussions here today of are we hitting higher level or lower level but from my experience, there’s a whole of precision and scrutiny in this second part and we need to be focusing on this first part.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.):
Do you agree, General?

General James Cartwright, United States Marine Corp (Ret.):
I do agree. I think that one of the opportunities here that remotely-piloted aircraft do offer us is that there’s more decision time, therefore more review time, therefore a better opportunity to be sure there are more eyes on the issue in an environment where they can make decisions. So it offers us opportunity that we probably haven’t taken advantage of.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.):
And conversely, anybody who is familiar with the history of war knows that abuses in the use of aircraft bombing – carpet bombing – involving unintended damage or perhaps sometimes intended damage to civilian populations is endemic to the history of warfare and sometimes used by our enemies and unfortunately in some instances in the past used by the United States. So we’re dealing here with a set of questions that has persisted for some time.

Let me, though, focus and again to you, Col. McSally, because Mr. Al-Muslimi raises the issue – and I think it’s a legitimate issue – that somehow there is the appearance – the perception – of greater damage and possible mistakes associated with this kind of weaponry – this tool. Is that a fair criticism, do you think?

Colonel Martha McSally, United States Air Force (Ret.):
Well, I can’t speak specifically, Senator, about operations in his country but I can say that the capability does exist to make sure that we minimize civilian casualties.

And the process that I’ve been through and I’m familiar with is one where we have to meet a very high level of positive identification once a target has been approved as a target, that we’ve actually met the criteria of positive ID, that we’ve met the criteria of geographic location with a variety of different sources…with high confidence, and that we’ve done a very thorough collateral damage assessment which is a very detailed process that we go through.

Again, I would encourage you all to get the classified briefing on that process and how we do that and to make sure that we do not have unintended civilian casualties.

So we do have the process available and the case that you’ve so eloquently been sharing about the impacts of some of the strikes going on in his country, I think we do need take a look at the scrutiny of who’s on that list – again, that first portion – and then making sure that the operators have the appropriate bar of positive identification and geographic location and the collateral damage assessment. But we do have the capability and we’ve done it in the past and his testimony shows that we need to ensure that that’s very high because the unintended consequences are severe.

Farea Al-Muslimi, youth activist and freelance journalist from Sana’a, Yemen:
…I would say that one of the things that are needed the most is disclosure – say who is in this list. A lot of the mistakes that also have happened is because I do not know if this person is a target or not therefore he’s welcomed everywhere he goes and that has made a lot of the mistakes that have happened and a lot of killings have happened where this simply people do not know that this person is a target and not just that he was not tried to get arrested.

Another issue that has blowback of making people fear the U.S. more than fearing AQAP. I met a man from Rada’a in the middle and what he said is that in the past women used to tell their children, “Go to sleep or I will call your father.” Now they say, “Go to sleep or I will call the planes.” That has shifted the whole conversation or the whole things of this.

In addition, it’s not just any qualitative of blowback of this specific example but more importantly it’s the killing of the legitimacy of a government, which is killing – making it look like an American puppet in Yemen, making other countries like Iran making use of this, and it has done much more than you can imagine.

General James Cartwright, United States Marine Corp (Ret.):
…I worry here what we have seen with drones is that without precise targeting on the ground – precise information and intelligence that is verifiable – that that’s generally when we have errors. And so we need to look at that end of the process. And in whatever process we put together, we need to ensure that the intelligence that drives the targeting is also part of the scrutiny. Okay? If we miss that, then we rely, as you said, just on the drone, we have challenges.

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3 Comments on “Transcript: Q&A with Sen. Richard Blumenthal on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

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