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After US drone attack, Yemeni journalist tells senators about the terror of targeted strikes

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Obama administration draws criticism from both parties in first congressional hearing on global drone warfare

Drone hearing: Farea al-Muslimi
Drone hearing: Farea al-Muslimi

For the first time, a civilian affected by a US drone strike in Yemen has testified before members of Congress. Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni journalist whose home village of Wessab had been attacked by a US drone just six days prior, went before the Senate's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights yesterday, during a special hearing on the effects of America's secret drone wars on civilian populations and the US rule of law. But despite previous commitments, representatives of the Obama administration were notably absent.

"The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine," said Muslimi to the bipartisan panel of US Senators, which included committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Al Franken (D-MN). The strike killed six people including its intended target, Hamid Radman al Manea, a local man suspected to have ties with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP). Muslimi was not an eyewitness to the strike, but he claims that the man was well-known around his home town and could have easily been arrested by local authorities — seemingly at odds with the US government's legal position that drone strikes are only justified when capture is "unfeasible."

"What the violent militants previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant."

"I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant," Muslimi continued, recalling his time going to school in America. "That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had."

Muslimi described his experience living in America as having changed his life, and has spoke highly of the US to his fellow Yemenis ever since his return. "Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time," he said, describing the anger he has seen play into the hands of terrorist recruiters. "What the violent militants previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant... This is not an isolated instance. Drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis."

The testimony comes at a time when the United States' secretive and unaccountable drone programs have finally begun to face major scrutiny within the halls of Congress. The ongoing CIA and JSOC operations — which have reportedly killed over 3,000 people, including a significant number of civilians and at least three American citizens — were challenged in a big way in March when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) embarked on a 13-hour filibuster questioning the limits of executive power. That session focused specifically on the strikes that killed two American citizens in Yemen, the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman.

"Let me be clear: the authority of the federal government and the protection of the Constitution should not be a partisan matter," said Senator Cruz. "I am concerned we may have conceded some of our moral high ground in this endeavor."

The long-overdue Congressional hearing brought the issue front and center yet again as the Senate's subcommittee heard from Muslimi and other expert witnesses about the various consequences and implications of targeted drone strikes. Senator Durbin presided alongside ranking member Cruz, both of whom chastised the Obama administration for failing to attend despite that the hearing had already been postponed to accommodate them.

"I am concerned we may have conceded some of our moral high ground in this endeavor."

The panel also included retired general James Cartwright, who formerly served as a senior official for the Obama administration's targeted killing program, and Rosa Brooks, a policy advisor and law professor at Georgetown University. One of the main problems identified was the lack of clarity over when and where regular international law or the rules of war apply.

"Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, for secret reasons, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials," said Brooks. "That frightens me. I don't doubt their good faith, but that's not the rule of law as we know it."

The panelists discussed the previously proposed solution of adding transparency and accountability by creating special intelligence courts for drone strikes, much like those already used by the FISA warrantless wiretapping law.

"In brief I think it would be constitutional and certainly most agree that the FISA court is," said Ilya Somin, a professor of constitutional law at George Mason University. Brooks agreed, but pushed even further. "I think there is no inherent reason also that such a court would need to operate in the extreme degree of secrecy that we’ve seen with the FISA court," she added. "There’s no inherent reason that you couldn’t have these declassified portions of opinions."

"Once you've been designated an enemy, we don't have to give you a fair fight. We can just shoot you."

Noted Senatorial warhawk Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wasn't so keen on the idea, however, aggressively insisting that "Once you've been designated an enemy, we don't have to give you a fair fight. We can just shoot you." Last week he brazenly exclaimed the "homeland is the battlefield," clamoring for domestic drone use in response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Of course, there's been confusion as to who, exactly, the "enemy" is. Last year, Obama counterterrorism advisor and recently-confirmed CIA chief John Brennan said in a statement that the US government conducts drone strikes against "specific al-Qaeda terrorists." But leaked documents obtained earlier this month by McClatchy revealed that the strikes frequently target and kill "other" groups and individuals vaguely defined as "militants." The administration has previously stated that it considers "militants" to be any male of military age occupying an operational area.

Brooks argues that vagueness will need to be addressed. "If law exists to restrain untrammeled power then the real question for us is not whether US targeted killings are all legal," she said. "The real question is this: do we want to live in a world in which the US government's justification for killing is so infinitely malleable?"

T.C. Sottek contributed to this report