House Intel Committee Rejects Changes To Targeted Killing Procedures

CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Air Force

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Thursday rejected two proposed amendments to allow for greater oversight of the United States’ targeted killing program, an issue that will gain more traction as authorization for the nation’s spending on military and spying efforts comes under debate once again.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) proposed two amendments to the Fiscal Year 2014 version of the Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA), which provides the funding levels and authorizations needed for the Intelligence Community to perform its functions. Both related to the level of Congressional oversight accorded to the targeted killing program currently in place. Whether it’s through the use of armed drones, special operations forces, or missiles launched via ship, the program is designed to find and kill suspected terrorists related to Al Qaeda, mostly operating through the authorities first granted to the President in 2001.

The first amendment would have required the President to produce an annual, unclassified report of “both combatant and non-combatant deaths and injuries by drone strikes” outside of Afghanistan. The amendment also would have exempted reporting from any combat zone where the United States has declared war or is under the subject of a future Authorization for the Use of Military Force. At present, the total numbers of those actually killed in the targeted killing program remain closely guarded secrets. Government reporting of civilian injuries in the aftermath of drone strikes are likewise non-existent.

Various groups outside of the United States government have attempted to tally the total number of civilians, particularly in Yemen and Pakistan, who have been killed or injured through armed drone strikes. The numbers these groups have varied from the New American Foundation’s estimate of between 2076-3421 casualties in Pakistan alone between 2005 and the present to the less specific claims of Amnesty International that U.S. drone strikes have violated international law. The Obama administration has mostly refused to comment on these estimates, and won’t give specific numbers as rebuttals. “To the extent that these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told the press after reviewing the Amnesty Report.

“Perhaps that is unavoidable and simply the nature of fighting the enemy we confront, an enemy that places no value on civilian life,” Schiff said during the markup. “But what we can do is be accountable and transparent, both with ourselves and with the world.”

The second amendment would have revamped the way that Americans suspected of operational roles in terrorists organizations can be targeted. The subject came to a head earlier this year when the White House for the first time admitted that it had launched the drone strike that killed American-citizen Anwar al-Awalaki, as well as a separate strike that killed al-Awlawki’s 16 year-old son.

Schiff’s amendment would have required that the Director of National Intelligence set up an “independent alternative analysis” of the information used to determine that an American-citizen fit the criteria — which still remains largely secret — required to be placed on the targeted killing list. This red-team would have 15 days to review the intelligence in the determination, with the leader pulled from a different intelligence agency that made the recommendation. The proposal in Schiff’s amendment matches a similar clause in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s version of the IAA, which passed through committee earlier this month. Critics, however, maintain that such an approach still falls well short of the due process that should be required in the event a U.S. citizen is accused of terrorism.

Both amendments, however, were rejected in committee as the final bill passed through to the full House of Representatives on an unrecorded voice vote. Once it passes through the House, it will have to be reconciled with the differences in the Senate version, including those that match up with Schiff’s provisions.

Since President Obama pledged greater oversight and transparency in the targeted killing program in May during a speech at the National Defense University, neither the administration nor Congress has seemed overly keen to launch into major reforms of the current system. That doesn’t mean that all legislators are content to leave things as they are, however. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) was at the forefront of urging the White House to open up the targeted killing program earlier this year, joining with the Progressive Caucus to urge more and greater changes. “It’s not easy for most members of Congress to get all the facts on our drone program, but all of us are asked to vote on legislation that affects our drone policy,” Ellison said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “We need greater transparency not just for Members of Congress but for the American people, too.”

The issue of armed drones in Pakistan will be harder to ignore as the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan begins to draw to a close and the debate over the powers granted to the president in 2001 come under debate once more. Various proposals to either expand or sunset the 2001 AUMF targeting Al Qaeda are already being discussed in the House and Senate, with the use of drone strikes likely to be a crucial component of any change made.