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A Year Later and We're Still Waiting for Answers About the Drone War

Mamana Bibi was a 67-year-old Pakistani grandmother and midwife, killed by a U.S. drone strike on October 24, 2012. One year ago, the family of Mamana Bibi came to Washington, D.C., to share their sad story with Members of Congress.

Mamana’s son, Rafiq ur Rehman, is a 39-year-old primary-school teacher. He and his two children, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9, were the first family members of a U.S. drone strike victim ever to speak to Members of Congress. Rafiq explained that he and his family were educators, not terrorists. He wanted to know why his family was targeted by the U.S. military. Zubair, a teenager, recalled how he “watched a U.S. drone kill my grandmother.” He described why he now fears blue skies: “Because drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” Nabila was picking okra with her grandmother for a religious holiday meal, when day became night. “I saw from the sky a drone and I hear a dum-dum noise. Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream.”

Only five Members of Congress came to hear this family’s testimony. Only five listened to the real impact of one of America’s most ruthless, extrajudicial, error-laden and enemy-producing war policies. The briefing was organized by both of us, Rep. Alan Grayson, and Director Robert Greenwald. It was part of our effort to change discourse about drone warfare. It also led the release of a new drone documentary, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. The film told these and other drone victims’ stories, focused on the government’s shadowy “signature strike” policy that allowed spy agencies to target and kill hundreds based on suspicion alone, and posed difficult questions that far too many lawmakers and national security officials still want to duck. 

Those questions include: Should America be killing people in other countries with which we are not at war? What constitutional framework allows the President and spy agencies to be judge, jury and executioner? Where only four percent of victims are even “linked” to Al Qaeda, what role are the killings , playing in inciting warfare and making anti-American enemies? Why do national leaders—in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress—believe that so-called military “solutions” are the only way to address global hot spots?  And why is it that every time they see something they don’t like, they feel the urge to bomb it?

For a brief period, it appeared that some progress was being made on drone policy. The President announced that he would transfer the program from the CIA to the Pentagon, where it would, theoretically be subject to more significant Congressional oversight. Legislation codifying that transition was introduced. Significantly, the frequency of drone strikes dropped as well. 

But a recent event—the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq—has resuscitated America’s dependence on drones. Our desire to avoid placing American troops on the ground again in the Middle East has had the perverse effect of promoting error-prone drones as the nation’s weapon of choice. No substantive change has been made to this secretive foreign assassination program. Reform efforts in Congress have stalled. The Administration has cloaked its addiction to drone warfare with the label “national security,” seeking to end any possibility of rational public discourse on the matter. 

That’s a problem for many reasons, but especially because drone strikes cause considerable “collateral damage” (an Orwellian phrase created by the military-industrial complex to sanitize the slaughter of the innocents).  For every Al Qaeda “target” that a drone attack eliminates, it spawns dozens of new radicals intent on exacting retribution against the U.S. –  vindication for the corpses and memories of  hundreds of innocent civilians who have been killed, in regions where the U.S. needs allies, not enemies.    

We cannot afford to delay reform any longer. We should start by acknowledging a simple truth: Many drone strike victims are not terrorists. These are real people – mothers, children, parents, cousins, human beings – not some nameless, faceless enemy. And any reform efforts should bring the drone program under the rule of law, with checks and balances on the actions of the Executive Branch, subjecting drone strikes to Congressional oversight, and compensation for the families of innocent victims.

Our politicians can no longer pretend that America’s policy of drone strike vigilantism is going unnoticed by the international community. The United Nations and international human rights groups have issued multiple reports detailing the deaths of innocent civilians resulting from these strikes. The documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, has been seen by millions of people abroad, including in Pakistan; it was featured at a UN Human Rights Council meeting; and it is being screened on college campuses and universities across the globe. And last October, Congressional testimony by the Rehman family finally put a face to “collateral damage.” 

Not one of us would stand by idly while a foreign government killed American grandmothers, children, and other innocent civilians via remote-controlled weapons that rain down death from the skies. Yet that’s precisely what the U.S. military-industrial complex has done for years, and we American citizens have let this happen in our good name. It’s time we all paid attention. It’s time we all acknowledged the immorality, the illegality, and the repercussions of U.S. drone strikes abroad.

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