On Thursday, February 7, the Senate held their hearings to confirm whether John Brennan, architect of President Obama's drone program, would be confirmed for his position as director of the CIA. However, it was also the moment of a rather ... unexpected event.
When Brennan took to the microphone, delivering thank yous first to his wife and then to his grandmother, protesters in the audience disrupted the hearing. They were able to disrupt the hearings once, then twice, and even a third time until the room had to be cleared of anyone but the senators with questions for Brennan.
These protesters were part of the anti-war group Code Pink, and they challenged the controversial "aftershocks" of drone strikes; namely, the collateral damage that these strikes cause and the children killed by drone Strikes in places like Pakistan. These controversies that have caused the UN to launch an investigation surrounding the ethics of drone warfare.
Through these protesters may appear to be disrupting a important service - deciding who will lead one of the most important positions in the U.S. government - in other ways, they raise the question of what was missing from John Brennan's senate hearings. What Americans really need to hear about is the targeted assassination program and how it has caused more harm than good.
The controversy over the ethics of drone warfare that has haunted Brennan ever since his name was put forward to be America's top spy. Brennan has continuously denied that drones cause collateral damage, claiming in a July 2011 speech that not a single "collateral" death had taken place as a result of drone strikes in Pakistan, a view he continued to uphold during his Senate hearings. However, this was proven false by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which found that out of a total of 311 drone strikes ordered by the Obama administration, between 473-893 civilians were killed, many of them reportedly children.
In many ways, instead of fulfilling military objectives, drone strikes may actually sabotage and undermine efforts by countries like Pakistan to combat terror. These countries need America to cooperate with them rather than continue to carry out unilateral drone strikes that causes collateral damage and makes Pakistanis wonder what the greater threat in their country is – the continued suicide bombings by Taliban militants, or American drone strikes that are believed tocause extensive collateral damage and many civilian deaths for every terrorist killed.
However, Brennan and the Obama adminstration have tried to explain away these facts, and have redefined what counts as a "casualty" to ensure that their view of drone strikes as effective combat tools remains unchallenged. According to the New York Times, the White House "counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants" unless there is explicit evidence posthumously proving them innocent. That means that everyone killed in a drone strike in Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan is unilaterally defined as a combatant by the United States through the mere fact of their physical proximity to an area selected as a target by drone operators. This definition makes there appear to be no civilian casualties caused by drone strikes at all, making drones a cost-free way to engage in the hunt of terrorists without ever having to deal with the political cost of casualties. In reality, this was never the case.
When Brennan was finally confronted with the controversy over drone strikes, he pointed to the assassination of Yemeni Al-Qaeda leader Anwar Al-Awlaki as proof of its success simply because Al-Awlaki was a "legitimate target." The executive branch, Brennan contended, had the power to decide who or what constituted a threat to the country. However, Al-Awlaki was an American citizen, and in accordance with the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution, no United States citizen may arbitrarily deprived of life, liberty or property by the government without sanction of law. And it is because of these constitutional rights that the drone strike on Anwar Al-Awlaki, which killed not just the cleric but also his sixteen year-old son - also a U.S. citizen - can now be considered tantamount to giving the Executive Branch the right to order the killing of any American citizen without adhering to the Due Process Clause.
Though the protest against Brennan's hearings was disruptive, it was also important because it tried to raise awareness on what American need to hear about the nature of drone warfare - namely, that drone warfare often causes more harm and collateral damage then good. The protesters also made us aware of the possibility that one day, drones themselves may be deployed all over America. Awareness of the repercussions of Brennan's drone program may be needed more than ever.