Senate Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday challenged the Obama administration to spell out its justification for using drones for targeted killings amid growing concerns about unchecked powers of the presidency and Americans' civil liberties.
"Even as President Obama commands a military with the most sophisticated weapons known to man, including the weaponized drones used in targeted killing operations, his authority is still grounded in words written more than 200 years ago," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at the start of a Senate hearing on the use of drones.
Lawmakers had hoped to question a member of the administration about the secret program in the war on terror and the underlying policy, but the administration declined to send a witness to the Judiciary subcommittee hearing. Instead, retired military officials, academics and other experts answered questions that underscored the congressional unease over the use of drones overseas.
The administration has argued that the president's authority stems from his constitutional power to protect the United States from imminent attack. The administration also has cited the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which says the commander in chief has the authority for strikes against al-Qaida and its affiliates.
Obama has used the law's authority to target terrorists with fatal drone strikes, including Americans overseas.
The president has promised to explain his policy, but members of Congress argue that he has been less than forthcoming about the secret program. Durbin listed six questions, such as the constitutional justification for targeted killing, what are the due process protections for U.S. citizens overseas who are targeted and the legal limits on the battlefield in the fight with al-Qaida.
"In my view, more transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and the international community," he said.
In a dramatic moment, Farea al-Muslimi testified that he was from Wessab, a remote village in Yemen, and six days ago a drone struck his village, terrifying thousands of poor farmers.
"The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tour your hearts and also mine," he said, adding later that drone strikes "are the face of America for many Yemens."
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright told the panel he was "worried that we've lost the moral high ground" on the handling of the issue.
The administration has never publicly described the effectiveness of the drone program. However, independent groups, relying on news reports and other information, have compiled estimates on the attacks. The New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, estimates the U.S. has launched 420 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen — the two countries where the strikes are believed to occur most frequently — since 2004. Between 2,424 and 3,967 people are believed to have been killed by U.S. drones, the majority in Pakistan.
The drone issue has created unique alliances on Capitol Hill with liberals joining forces with libertarian-leaning Republicans.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told the Senate hearing that drones are technology, but the "real scope of this hearing and of the concern is on the scope of federal power."
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., acknowledged the odd political bedfellows on the issue, telling the witnesses and a crowded hearing room, "You know you're in strange territory when Sen. Cruz and I have the same questions."
The hearing with retired military officers and outside experts comes a month after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., waged a nearly 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan's nomination over whether the president has the authority to use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on American soil if the citizen is not engaged in combat. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the president does not have that authority.