A Yemeni man whose village was struck by American drones equated that practice with the Boston bombing in testimony before U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday.
Farea-al-Muslimi, who was educated in the U.S. courtesy of a State Department scholarship and now works as an activist and fixer for journalists in Yemen, said the face of America in his home country is the face of drones and that they are helping al Qaeda turn his countrymen against the United States.
"I am from Wessab, a remote mountain village in Yemen, about nine hours' drive from my country's capital, Sana'a," said al-Muslimi before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Most of the world has never heard of Wessab. But just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine," he said.
Al-Muslimi put a human face on the targeted killing program, which has been in use in the war on terror for more than a decade. But this was the first public hearing on the matter in Congress, according to Sen. Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat has been a political mentor to President Obama, but has pushed the president on the issue of targeted killing program.
"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," said Durbin.
While the president promised during his State of the Union address this year to "engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
The hearing Tuesday was meant to explore the legal justification for the drone program. But the Obama administration declined to send a representative. Only in 2012 did the administration officially disclose details of how the CIA program operates. Members of Congress have not all been shown the legal justification for the program, which remains rooted in the 2001 authorization for military force after the 9/11 terror attacks. CIA director John Brennan faced tough questions in Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year. His nomination was also briefly filibustered by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
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Durbin said he was disappointed by the administration.
Drones make for strange political bedfellows. Durbin was joined by fellow liberal Sen. Al Franken and also Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas conservative Republican in voicing frustration with the White House.
"I'd like to echo the concern that the chairman raised and the disappointment that the Obama administration declined to send a witness particularly after this hearing was delayed for one week in order to accommodate the administration's schedule," said Cruz, "and I am hopeful that they will provide witnesses at subsequent hearings."
A spokesman said the administration is in contact with the committee, albeit outside of public view.
"We have been in regular contact with the Committee about how we can best provide them the information they require," said National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden. "As the president has indicated, we will continue to engage Congress and to ensure that our counterterrorism efforts are not only consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but even more transparent to the American people and to the world."