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Witnesses at a Drone Hearing

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This coming Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on "Drones and the War On Terror: When Can the U.S. Target Alleged American Terrorists Overseas?"

This is odd for a number of reasons.

1. Congressional committees usually don't do anything at all on such matters.

2. The vast majority of the men, women, and children being killed have not been targeted.

3. The vast majority of the men, women, and children being killed or targeted have not been Americans.

4. The president's nominee to direct the CIA refuses to deny that the president claims the power to kill Americans when they are not overseas, not to mention non-Americans within the United States and anyone at all overseas.

5. The three Americans we know the president has targeted and killed by drone strike in no way match up with the justifications for theoretical strikes found in the "white paper."

6. The president is targeting and killing people with a variety of technologies, not just drones.

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7. The only remotely legal or moral answer to the question asked by the hearing is "never."

All such concerns will, of course, be brushed aside.  Congress ought to question the administration on its program of drone killing, regardless of what title the hearing is given, right?  But this is where things get really odd.  The witness list doesn't include the president or a single person who works for him, no one from the CIA, no one from the White House, no one from the Pentagon, nobody from the Office of Legal Counsel. As far as we know, and it seems extremely likely to be the case, the committee has not subpoenaed any documents.  If it invited any government witnesses, it has not subpoenaed them or made any plans to figuratively or literally hold them in contempt.  Instead, all the witnesses are outside "experts" who won't know any more about what's going on than the rest of us.

A defender of this approach explained it to me thus: Senators and Representatives are often remarkably ignorant.  Senator Dianne Feinstein doesn't even know that all military aged males killed by drone strikes are being declared militants.  Congress Members don't even read newspapers.  If some smart experts testify at a public hearing, then elected officials can't deny as many facts.  Plus, inviting government witnesses would just produce stonewalling or lying. 

In my view, stonewalling and lying are reasons for subpoenas and contempt, not a complete abdication of the power of oversight.  It's not that I think glorified public newspaper reading is worse than nothing.  I just think more is called for.

On the other hand, the notion that Congress needs more information before it should act is ludicrous.  What sort of memo could legalize murder?  What sort of due process could be applied to murder to make it not be murder?  As long as Congress is bringing in experts to talk about what's already public knowledge, I'd like to propose a different type of witness.  If witnesses from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen are not deemed relevant, newspaper interpreters are not going to make them so.  I'd like to propose, then, as one of many actually useful witnesses a gentleman by the name of Leo Tolstoy, who had this to say well over a century ago:

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"People are astonished that every year there are sixty thousand cases of suicide in Europe, and those only the recognized and recorded cases--and excluding Russia and Turkey; but one ought rather to be surprised that there are so few. Every man of the present day, if we go deep enough into the contradiction between his conscience and his life, is in a state of despair.

"Not to speak of all the other contradictions between modern life and the conscience, the permanently armed condition of Europe together with its profession of Christianity is alone enough to drive any man to despair, to doubt of the sanity of mankind, and to terminate an existence in this senseless and brutal world. This contradiction, which is a quintessence of all the other contradictions, is so terrible that to live and to take part in it is only possible if one does not think of it--if one is able to forget it.

"What! all of us, Christians, not only profess to love one another, but do actually live one common life; we whose social existence beats with one common pulse--we aid one another, learn from one another, draw ever closer to one another to our mutual happiness, and find in this closeness the whole meaning of life!--and to-morrow some crazy ruler will say some stupidity, and another will answer in the same spirit, and then I must go expose myself to being murdered, and murder men--who have done me no harm--and more than that, whom I love. And this is not a remote contingency, but the very thing we are all preparing for, which is not only probable, but an inevitable certainty.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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