The Senate is going to be on recess this coming week. When they are on recess, members of Congress are supposed to hear from their constituents.
What if we could get a bunch of people in California to call one of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's California offices during the recess, urging her to publicly commit to holding a public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee - which she chairs - on CIA drone strikes? What if we could generate some calls to other members of the Intelligence Committee from their constituents?
Could we move Feinstein to a new understanding of what CIA "oversight" should be?
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to oversee the Central Intelligence Agency, has never held a public hearing on CIA drone strikes. Indeed, in the year prior to the confirmation hearing of John Brennan to head the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee never held any public hearing on any issue whatsoever, which Steven Aftergood of the Federation of Americans Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy says "may be an unprecedented hiatus in the history of the Senate Committee."
Senator Feinstein has claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee has been doing "robust oversight." But unfortunately, just as the CIA has been low-balling civilian casualties from CIA drone strikes by redefining "militant" as "any military-age male killed in a drone strike," it appears that Feinstein has in practice redefined "oversight" as "meeting with CIA officials and accepting without question whatever they say." Her account, emailed to reporters, of the committee's "robust oversight" of the CIA on drone strikes doesn't provide any evidence of any interaction with anyone outside the CIA, including other Obama administration officials who have been critical of the CIA's drone strike policies. And, as The Guardian and The Washington Post have noted, Feinstein's repetition of CIA claims that the number of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes each year has "typically been in the single digits" are contradicted by three independent open-source tabulators of drone strike deaths: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal, and the New America Foundation.
Let me assure you that I have absolutely zero personal animus against Feinstein. Like almost any politician, she responds to stimuli from her political environment, and there is no question in my mind that in the presence of different stimuli from her constituents, she would respond differently.
And there is also no doubt in my mind that Feinstein is capable of exercising leadership when it comes to protecting innocent civilians from US weapons. It was Feinstein who led efforts in the Senate to bring accountability to US exports of cluster bombs after the Israeli military used them in its 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The Israeli government wasn't happy about that. The Israeli government's amen corner in Washington - which, as even Saturday Night Live knows, is often capable of making senators behave in extreme ways by claiming it's necessary for the security of Israel - wasn't happy about it either. But Senator Feinstein did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.
So, there is every reason to believe that Senator Feinstein could move in her definition of "robust oversight" of the CIA if she hears from Californians.
Is it plausible that a bunch of Californians would call Feinstein?
A recent YouGov poll suggests that 16 percent of the population are currently hardcore opponents of the drone strike policy, in the sense that they oppose any use of drones to kill anyone whatsoever; the same poll shows 56 percent support targeting "high-level terrorist leaders who may be involved in planning attacks." A mere 13 percent support targeting "anyone suspected of being associated with a terrorist group," which, judging by the reporting of The New York Times in May, most closely describes the policy the CIA has pursued, given that, according to the US government officials interviewed by the Times, the CIA has counted any "military-aged male" killed by a US drone strike as a "militant," and therefore okay to kill, simply based on where they were.
The same poll found that 43 percent would "oppose using drones to target terrorist suspects if there is a risk of killing innocent people," while only 27 percent of respondents said they would favor "using drones to target terrorist suspects if there is a risk of killing innocent people." Since, according to the tally by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, somewhere between 13 percent and 34 percent of the deaths resulting from US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 have been civilians, it would appear that there is indeed a risk of killing innocent people in the policy that has been pursued. So, apparently, more people oppose the policy that has been pursued than support it.
But let's suppose that most people don't know that the CIA has killed lots of people who were only "suspected of being associated with a terrorist group," as opposed to being "high-level terrorist leaders who may be involved in planning attacks." And let's also suppose that most people don't know that there is indeed "a risk of killing innocent people" - a significant risk, in fact.
So, to be cautious, to get a sense of possible scale, let's look at the one-sixth of Californians who oppose drone strikes under any circumstances. Let's further assume that if you're not willing and able to vote, you're probably not willing and able to call your senator's office. Around 13 million people voted in California in November 2012. So, there are probably a little over 2 million voters in California who oppose drone strikes under any circumstances. But calling your senator is a higher level of engagement than voting. Nationally, about 66 million people voted for Obama in November 2012. There are 7 million people on MoveOn's national list, overwhelmingly Obama voters. So let's take that as a crude measure of higher-level engagement: about one in ten Obama voters is willing to do things like sign petitions. So, here's a very rough guess: there are about 200,000 people in California who might conceivably be persuaded to call one of Feinstein's offices during the recess, urging her to hold public hearings on CIA drone strikes.
Feinstein has four offices in California:
San Francisco: (415) 393-0707
Fresno: (559) 485-7430
Los Angeles: (310) 914-7300
San Diego: (619) 231-9712
Suppose we could get just 1 out of every 100 voters in California who oppose drone strikes under any circumstances and do more than vote to engage politically to call one of Feinstein's four California offices during the recess, asking for the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold a public hearing on CIA drone strikes. That's 2,000 people; divided across the four offices, that's 500 calls per office.
If we could even get 100 calls into each office during the recess, do you think Senator Feinstein would notice?
Ten percent of the US population lives in California. But suppose you don't. Is there nothing for you to do?
Well, if you live in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Maine, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Idaho, or Oklahoma, you also have a senator on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the contact information for the senator's offices in your state is here.
You can report your call to a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee by taking the one-line poll here.
Otherwise, you probably know someone in one of the aforementioned states, and you could forward them this information. And everyone can sign a petition to Senator Feinstein here.
We can't have a meaningful public opinion about this policy until the broad public is fully exposed to both sides of the argument. Public Congressional hearings would be an excellent start.