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Leading Senate Democrat Has Concerns With U.S. Drones


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. After the September 11th attacks, the U.S. Congress passed something called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and it gave the American government the authority to retaliate against those responsible for the attack. It was broad and general, and it was supposed to be that way. The U.S. was at war against al-Qaida.

Twelve years later, that same law, passed just three days after 9/11, is the legal justification for U.S. drone strikes: the targeted attacks we've seen over the past several years in places like Somalia and Yemen against an enemy that with time has become more diffuse, with direct links to the perpetrators of 9/11 less and less obvious. It's been up to Congress to change that law. But until recently, there's been very little political will to do so. Now, some of President Obama's closest supporters are saying it's time to redefine who can and cannot be targeted by American drones.

This past week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois held the first in a series of hearings on this issue. When I spoke with Senator Durbin, we started by talking about that law passed right after 9/11. So, the spirit of that law is predicated on the belief that the United States was at war with al-Qaida. Do you believe that that is no longer an accurate characterization? Are we no longer at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: No, I think it's obvious that al-Qaida is still a threat. But certainly the questions we asked at the hearing went beyond that. Today, if you're looking for enemy combatants, are you only looking for those connected to al-Qaida? There are other threats to the United States and other groups. Are they covered by the same authorization?

MARTIN: But as you well know, the reason that this program has been kept so secret is because making it more transparent would jeopardize the operations. Are you concerned that by pushing for more transparency, more accountability that it will undermine what the program is intended to do?

DURBIN: You put your finger on the problem. These decisions are made in the context of intelligence that's been gathered at the risk of human life - not just American life but our friends and allies overseas. So, transparency and protecting our sources becomes a real challenge, particularly as we envision this war continuing for many years to come.

MARTIN: Once an administration has been given so much power, do you really expect the same administration to push for less autonomy, less control?

DURBIN: Well, I have to say, as you know, I'm a friend of this president and we're fortunate to have a person who has a background in constitutional law and who has invited this national debate. Contrast this with the issue of torture under a previous administration when there was virtual denial of a practice which had been condemned by domestic and international law. In this case, the opposite is true. When it comes to the use of drones, this administration has really opened the discussion and said let's establish some standards here. I think that's a healthy thing.

MARTIN: What concrete change do you think needs to happen? What would a more appropriate legal framework look like?

DURBIN: Initially, there needs to be more congressional oversight. No question about it. And it has to be somewhat limited. It can't be calling in 535 members of Congress for a briefing. We understand some of the information that's being used here is extremely delicate, very important, and dangerous to our friends and allies if it's disclosed. But at the same time, there has to be some way to monitor decisions as they're being made in the use of drones.

MARTIN: You're asking for information before a strike happens, not after.

DURBIN: Well, it could be both. It could be that we need information before, but we need to also review the practices afterwards. The recent debate about the new head of the CIA raised the question as to whether that intelligence agency should be engaged in the use of drones. That's something that's never been actively debated on Capitol Hill. That's one aspect of it. But it goes far beyond that. Drones, as precise as they are, end up killing innocent people. And we have to face the consequences. One of our witnesses at the hearing was a young man from Yemen who'd lived in the United States and confessed to loving this country. He went back to his village in Yemen a few months ago and found that they had been victims of a drone strike. The view of the United States in that village, he said, is as negative as it could be because this force from out of the sky had killed innocent people. So, it isn't a bloodless or an easy choice to make in the use of these drones, even in the pursuit of keeping America safe.

MARTIN: The number of drone attacks, senator, waged by the U.S. has dropped dramatically - from 122 in the year 2010, which was the peak, to just six this year. Those numbers are from the New America Foundation. Do you have any idea what is to account for the decline? [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: There were just six US drone strikes IN PAKISTAN alone this year.]

DURBIN: You know, I can't explain that, and maybe that's one of the reasons why this hearing was necessary. There comes a point when the commander-in-chief has to make a decision to keep us safe. I understand that. But if this is going to be an ongoing policy against an enemy, at some point the American people have to be part of this conversation.

MARTIN: And lastly, it has been so many years; there has not been a lot of political will among your colleagues on Capitol Hill to make a change to the legal framework that authorizes the drone program. What makes you think anything is different now?

DURBIN: Well, we're withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan in the near future. And the question then is have we completed the use of military force as envisioned in 2001? The honest answer is, no, the threat is still there. And my colleagues and I feel that we have a responsibility, as challenging as it is, to sit down, measure that threat, and to do it in a constitutional fashion.

MARTIN: Senator Dick Durbin. He joined us from his office on Capitol Hill. Senator Durbin, thanks for taking the time.

DURBIN: Thank you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this interview, our host notes that there have been just six U.S. drone strikes this year, citing the New America Foundation. This is incomplete: There were just six U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone this year.