Transcript: Press Q&A on civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan – Oct. 29, 2013

Partial transcript of press Q&A on civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The congressional briefing was held on Oct. 29, 2013:

Two quick questions. Firstly, can you give us your perspective on how the drone attacks has affected America’s place or prestige in the world in the context of the spying allegations that are going? And secondly, today you had 5 Congress – members of Congress coming here but obviously there are over 500. There are many Democrats in Congress who support the policy, who believe that it is the leading capabilities of the distance in this area. So I wondered what alternatives do you have? Are you proposing to completely end drone strikes? Or should there be boots put on the ground? What is your alternative policy? And what would you propose to the administration?

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
Well, first, I think that it’s clear from objective evidence…that the drone program has been extremely damaging to America’s image in that part of the world and other parts of the world as well. Pakistan polling used to indicate that in the view of Pakistanis that their closest ally and greatest friend was America. And now it’s basically the opposite. We’ve gone from the most popular country in Pakistan to, according to the polls that I’ve seen, to the least popular country among Pakistanis, and if you ask people why the answer is this program.

Every time that we take out one militant, we seem to give rise to the hatred of thousands through the program itself and through the slaughter of, unfortunately, the innocents.

And so I think we have to judge not just the benefits of the program to our security but also the costs.

I will point out to you that no other country in the world does this. Certainly Russia has its enemies but we don’t see the Russians sending drones to other countries. At this point, sending military forces to other countries is very unusual if you’re talking about any country other than the United States.

With regard to alternatives, you can see what other countries are doing in situations like this – typically rely upon local forces, take actions against local insurgents, local militants. It’s been that way around the world now for generations.

It’s highly, highly unusual and, in the views of many, a violation of international law to use force in other countries except in immediate self-defense or with the authorization of the Security Council of the United Nations. Neither one of those is present here.

As for alternatives, I think the alternative is what I said. In addition to that, I would say that if Pakistan wanted to have its own drone program, it would be Pakistan’s affair. If Yemen wanted to have Yemen’s own drone program, it would be Yemen’s affair. Specific technology that a country uses in order to secure its own internal circumstances is not something that we really have much of a say in. The problem is that people sitting here in this Washington D.C. are making life and death decisions of specific individuals in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, and that is very problematic.


Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
They should learn from this hearing and learn from the eloquence of the victims. In fact, there are all sorts of ways to defeat the enemy without making other people come to the enemy’s defense.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey):
Since a large purpose of today’s gathering is to put human faces on what has been a very impersonal policy, I would like to ask our guests what they hear from their friends and neighbors and countrymen about the idea that killing will come from the sky without warning, out of a – literally out of a blue sky…How does that affect their attitude toward the perpetrators of this killing?

Rafiqul Rehman (via translator):
He’s saying that this isn’t my opinion. This is the opinion of my neighbors. But when they saw what happened to my mother, they were telling me that “What the U.S. has done to you, you should be angry towards them. You should hate them.” And he says that it’s because they saw what happened to my mom. But before that we wouldn’t really – we’d just live our own lives and not have any opinions about America because we have our own world.

What we have noticed though ever since these drones have started, it’s created disruptions in our lives. We can’t – our children are living in fear. They do not want to go to school. They don’t want to play outside.

And it was also quite disturbing to find that after the event and I saw my mom buried, there were news reports coming out with false information trying to justify why the drones have fallen in front of my house.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
I’d like to add one more thing…Pakistan has been America’s ally now for many decades. And also, for many, many years Pakistan has been the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign military after Israel and Egypt. We’re talking about a few hundred people – admittedly operating in a difficult part of the country with difficult terrain – but that was a few hundred people – a few hundred people that we purport to be able to identify through electronic surveillance means from elsewhere. That’s what makes these attacks possible. Is it really asking so much of a country that we just gave $1 billion in aid to in just the past few months – is it really asking so much to have them use their military to operate on their territory and find whoever these people are and do whatever may be appropriate with them, which may or may not be killing, at the expense of far fewer civilian deaths? I think that would be a much more practical way than this.

Robert Greenwald, President of Brave New Foundation:
One thing that when I interviewed Khan in Pakistan for the film, he said it very simply and very eloquent, “Yes, there are a hundred or two hundred fanatics. But now, you have 800,000 people in this area who hate the United States because of this policy.”

Congressman Grayson, only 5 members of Congress attended this briefing. How soon do you expect to have a full congressional hearing or even an investigation into the civilian casualties? How much support do you think you’ll have?

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
Well, first, unfortunately for better or for worse – and my colleagues can verify this – it’s not unusual to have a hearing in Congress with only 5 members attending. In fact, it’s quite common. I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the way it is. At this particular moment, I’m literally supposed to be in three different hearings and so are other members. I don’t think the fact that five members came here should be misinterpreted. I think that that shows a fair amount of interest in this subject and interest that will build over time.

I don’t expect to see a formal hearing on this subject anytime soon. The appropriate committees generally are staffed by people…who are friends of the military industrial complex in the United States, not enemies of it or even skeptics of it. So I don’t necessarily expect that the Republicans who in charge of the Armed Services Committee are going to conduct a hearing soon.

But if you look around the room, you’ll see tremendous interests on the part of the media, the public, many congressional staffers, and I think that that’s something that over time we can build on because over time people will realize that policies like this are not productive; it’s counter-productive. It doesn’t make us safer; it makes us less safe.

[Inaudible] …I want to ask Rafiqul and Nabeela if they have the opportunity of going to the White House, what would they say to the President?

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
…I think there are real moral questions about whether one person should have that kind of power…to order the death of anyone else…Unless you’re talking about decisions that are literally on the battlefield, we generally make those decisions collectively through some sort of justice system…I’m personally uncomfortable with the idea that the President makes these decisions unilaterally. He’s our commander in chief. I understand that that’s what the Constitution conveys to him…but it is unprecedented for the commander in chief to say one person lives and another person dies unless you’re talking about the other example, which is amnesty. President Lincoln was famous during the civil war for freeing hundreds, if not, thousands of Confederate soldiers who’ve been condemned to death and were waiting to die. And his reason was very simple; he felt that there had been enough killing, and I think that that’s pretty much up front today – there’s been enough killing.

Rafiqul Rehman: Via translator
What I would say to President Obama if I have the opportunity to meet with him is that what happened to me and my family was wrong. And I’d ask him for questions to find a peaceful end to this war in my country, to find an end to these drones. I came here and I noticed during my short stay that everyone lives peacefully here, that it’s a nice life. Everyone enjoys being with each other, and no one lives in fear. And my hopes and dreams are that my children too can live in a similar environment in North Waziristan. I dream that my children will complete their education and help rebuild Pakistan. Our country will be guided by humanity and peaceful means, and I think this is something that both the Pakistani government and the American government need to work together to achieve.

…Congressman Grayson, do you believe the United States is committing war crimes? And do you believe that the drone program should be eliminated now?

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
With regard to the first question, the answer is no because we don’t have the deliberate killing of civilians or any actions that would necessarily involve the killing of civilians through negligence or – how should I put this? – knowing very well the extreme risks involved. In cases that have been coming up over the past few weeks about the war crimes, the essential element general has been the deliberate killing by civilians. And here we have a horrible thing – the inadvertent killing of civilians – but it’s still not the same thing.

Your second question?

Would you like to see the drone program completely eliminated?

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida):
I think, as I indicated earlier, I think that the drone program is counter-productive and that there are much more effective ways to accomplish the same ends without anything near the risks that we see on killing civilians.

Part of the problem we have here is that it’s simply impossible to know what effort was made of someone sitting in a chair and a computer screen in the United States understand the local circumstances well enough to ever make the fine distinction between the innocent and the guilty. And as I indicated before, the Pakistani army, the Pakistani government are in a much better position to be taking these kinds of actions and it would dramatically reduce the risks to civilians if they did so.

That’s true not just in Pakistan but in Yemen and virtually everywhere else where these actions are even contemplated. It turns out that in many places where Al Qaeda operates, the government is friendly to the United States, and we should rely upon that and essentially rely upon each government to control its own territories, its own population, to take action when necessary.

You may recall the original justification for the war in Afghanistan, which is hard to recall since so many years have passed and we’re still there, the original justification for the war in Afghanistan was that the government of Afghanistan was friend to Al Qaeda and basically hosting Al Qaeda. That’s not the situation in Pakistan. That’s not the situation in Yemen. That’s not the situation virtually anywhere in the world today.

And the consequence of that is that there are other means to accomplish this that does not involve the wholesale inflaming of foreign public opinion against us, which in fact is one of the real problems that we face in our national security today.


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