At Long Last, Congress Hears From a Drone Strike Victim

A Pakistani family devastated by drones gave a landmark briefing on Tuesday.

Cole Stangler

'How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too?' asked Pakistani schoolteacher Rafiq ur Rehman, whose mother was killed by drone strikes in October 2012. (Jim Watson / Getty)

On Tues­day morn­ing, almost 10 years after the U.S. gov­ern­ment began using drones to tar­get sus­pect­ed mil­i­tants in Pak­istan — one of the tools of the War on Ter­ror that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has embraced and expand­ed since tak­ing office in 2009 — Con­gress heard from some of the policy’s inno­cent vic­tims for the first time.

'I no longer prefer blue skies,' said 13-year-old Zubair, whose leg was injured with shrapnel from the attack. 'In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.'

In the Ray­burn House Office Build­ing, Pak­istani school teacher Rafiq ur Rehman and his two chil­dren, 13-year-old Zubair and 9‑year-old Nabi­la, recount­ed before five mem­bers of Con­gress how an Octo­ber 2012 drone strike in their native trib­al region of North Waziris­tan killed Rehman’s 67-year-old moth­er and left the fam­i­ly phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly scarred.

Mom­i­na Bibi was gar­den­ing on the eve of the Mus­lim holy day of Eid al-Adha, Rehman said, when she was hit and imme­di­ate­ly killed by the strike. Nabi­la and Zubair were also both injured. Nei­ther the CIA nor the White House has com­ment­ed on the spe­cif­ic attack. 

As a teacher, my job is to edu­cate,” Rehman said dur­ing his tes­ti­mo­ny, which was trans­lat­ed from Urdu. But how do I teach some­thing like this? How do I explain what I myself do not under­stand? How can I in good faith reas­sure the chil­dren that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not under­stand why it killed my moth­er and injured my children?”

I no longer pre­fer blue skies,” said 13-year-old Zubair, whose leg was injured with shrap­nel from the attack. In fact, I now pre­fer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray. When the sky bright­ens, drones return and we live in fear.”

Orga­nized by Rep. Alan Grayson (D‑Fla.) in con­junc­tion with the pro­gres­sive media non-prof­it Brave New Foun­da­tion, the brief­ing was not a for­mal hear­ing. In fact, there were some con­cerns that it would not take place at all, giv­en that the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, who has inves­ti­gat­ed drone strikes in Pak­istan for the last three years and directs the Foun­da­tion for Fun­da­men­tal Rights, was denied a visa by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Lin­sey Peciko­nis, a spokesper­son for Brave New Foun­da­tion, says she wasn’t sure the meet­ing was actu­al­ly going to hap­pen until the Rehman fam­i­ly phys­i­cal­ly made it out of the air­port in Wash­ing­ton last week. 

Nonethe­less, five mem­bers of the House were in atten­dance, includ­ing Grayson, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D‑Ill.), who’s a mem­ber of the Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Rush Holt (D‑N.J.), John Cony­ers (D‑Mich.) and Rick Nolan (D‑Minn.). In addi­tion to com­ments from the Rehman fam­i­ly and mem­bers of Con­gress, the brief­ing fea­tured remarks from Brave New Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Robert Green­wald and Jen­nifer Gib­son, a lawyer with the Unit­ed King­dom-based non-prof­it Reprieve.

Accord­ing to Gib­son, whose group has inves­ti­gat­ed and pub­li­cized the Unit­ed States’ use of drones, the respon­si­bil­i­ty to prove that drone strikes are harm­ing inno­cent civil­ians must not remain on the civil­ians them­selves. The onus is no longer on these vic­tims to pro­vide evi­dence of their case. They have done that,” Gib­son said dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion. The onus is now on Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and this admin­is­tra­tion to bring this war out of the shadows.”

Though Tuesday’s brief­ing was a mile­stone because it was the first face-to-face con­tact mem­bers of Con­gress have had with vic­tims of the drone wars, it was ulti­mate­ly short on spe­cif­ic demands or requests. All of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives on hand expressed gen­er­al con­cerns about the lack of trans­paren­cy, and the civil­ian costs. Cony­ers and Holt did call for a con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into the tar­get­ed killing pol­i­cy, but con­sid­er­ing their gen­er­al­ly lit­tle influ­ence over the Armed Ser­vice and Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tees, a for­mal inquiry is high­ly unlike­ly in the near term.

The appro­pri­ate com­mit­tees gen­er­al­ly are staffed by peo­ple, if I may say this, who are friends of the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex,” Grayson said.

Instead, the briefing’s objec­tive seemed to be about putting gen­er­al­ized pres­sure on the White House to open up more about the legal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and over­sight mech­a­nisms asso­ci­at­ed with its tar­get­ed killing pro­gram. To date, the admin­is­tra­tion has not released any legal mem­os jus­ti­fy­ing the policy.

Mean­while, dur­ing the last ten years, the CIA and Defense Department’s drone strikes have killed almost 3,000 peo­ple in Pak­istan, Yemen and Soma­lia, accord­ing to the Lon­don-based Bureau of Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism. In Pak­istan specif­i­cal­ly, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has over­seen 325 of the 376 total strikes.

The brief­ing also came amid increased recent scruti­ny of the Unit­ed States’ tar­get­ed killing pro­gram — both domes­ti­cal­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly. Last week, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al pub­lished a report con­clud­ing that CIA offi­cials in charge of the pol­i­cy in Pak­istan may have com­mit­ted war crimes, giv­en that the group esti­mates drone strikes have killed up to 900 civil­ians in the coun­try. Pakistan’s Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif asked Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to end strikes in his coun­try dur­ing a meet­ing at the White House last week, and recent UN reports have also called on the Unit­ed States to launch a pub­lic inves­ti­ga­tion of its pro­gram in gen­er­al. The U.S. has since defend­ed the program’s over­sight and legal­i­ty to the UN.

And on Thurs­day, Rep. Adam Smith (D‑Wash.), a sup­port­er of the Oba­ma administration’s use of drones and the rank­ing mem­ber on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, crit­i­cized the program’s lack of trans­paren­cy — no small ges­ture giv­en his posi­tion and par­ty affiliation. 

The admin­is­tra­tion, every admin­is­tra­tion, seems to think it should share noth­ing,” Smith said dur­ing an event at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, a promi­nent for­eign pol­i­cy think tank in Wash­ing­ton. I think the admin­is­tra­tion believes … [they] gave a speech, [they] explained it … and now leave [them] alone, [they’re] going to go back to work.”

CODEPINK’s Medea Ben­jamin, a long­time peace activist and per­haps the most well-known crit­ic of drone usage as a result of her exchange with the Pres­i­dent dur­ing a speech in May, says she was pleased with the briefing.

This is momen­tous, giv­en how under­cov­er the pro­gram has been until now,” says Ben­jamin, who was also present at the brief­ing. Just to bring them and host the fam­i­ly is a big step for a Demo­c­rat [Grayson] … Just the fact that the U.S. pub­lic is final­ly going to get to hear the sto­ry … of drone vic­tim fam­i­lies, that’s momen­tous. It shouldn’t be. It’s dis­gust­ing that it is.”

How­ev­er, she crit­i­cizes the fact that only Democ­rats were in atten­dance. This should real­ly be a bipar­ti­san thing, giv­en that it’s hard for Democ­rats to go up against Oba­ma and it’s a lit­tle bit eas­i­er for the Repub­li­cans,” she says. So I think it real­ly needs to be much more bipartisan.”

The rep­re­sen­ta­tives on hand also stopped short of endors­ing Amnesty’s sug­ges­tion that strikes like the one that killed Mamana Bibi amount to war crimes. When In These Times asked the three mem­bers of Con­gress who were in the room about it in the brief­in­g’s open-end­ed ques­tion-and-answer ses­sion, Holt did not answer and Nolan deflect­ed the query. Grayson lat­er said dur­ing the brief­ing that he didn’t think drone strikes amount­ed to war crimes, because they aren’t delib­er­ate­ly designed to kill civilians.

Ben­jamin isn’t con­vinced. I think I would be a lit­tle stronger in the con­dem­na­tion, of course, but I’m not a Con­gress­man. So I can call a war crime a war crime,” she says.

But for the Rehman fam­i­ly, it doesn’t mat­ter that the strikes’ civil­ian casu­al­ties are unin­ten­tion­al. They, like many oth­ers in Pak­istan and else­where, are still suf­fer­ing from them. At one point dur­ing the brief­ing, a reporter asked Rafiq ur Rehman what he him­self would tell Pres­i­dent Oba­ma if giv­en the chance.

What I would say to Oba­ma is … that what hap­pened to me and my fam­i­ly was wrong,” Rehman said through a trans­la­tor. And I would ask him to find a peace­ful end to this war in my coun­try, to find an end to these drones.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH