STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Until very recently, this next story was being discussed in public by seemingly everyone except the United States government.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's the U.S. policy of targeted killing, commonly using drones buzzing overhead to strike suspected militants in places like Pakistan or Yemen. President Obama's administration has only begun to discuss the program.
INSKEEP: And yesterday the Senate held its first public hearing. Lawmakers say they want to establish some rules and prevent abuse. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: President Obama said earlier this year he doesn't expect people to just take his word that the U.S. drone program follows the law. But his White House didn't send a witness to the Senate Judiciary panel to testify about it. That's something one of the president's closest allies, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, pointed to right out of the gate.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD DURBIN: I do want to note for the record my disappointment that the administration declined to provide a witness to testify at today's hearings.
JOHNSON: Durbin, a Democrat, said the law hasn't kept up with technology or the facts on the ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
DURBIN: I knew what we were voting for in 2001 when it came to Afghanistan. That's where al-Qaida was. And they had just attacked the United States and we were going to answer that attack. I didn't realize that we would be having this conversation 12 years later about Yemen, Somalia, even Pakistan.
JOHNSON: The Obama administration has sent drones into all of those countries to target what it calls senior operational leaders of al-Qaida or its affiliates. But the program is shrouded in secrecy. Too many secrets, said Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks.
ROSA BROOKS: Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone anywhere on Earth at any time for secret reasons based on secret evidence in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials. That frightens me.
JOHNSON: Brooks said there may well be a sound legal reason for all of those U.S. drone strikes. But people just don't know enough to feel comfortable about it. Retired General James Cartwright.
GENERAL JAMES CARTWRIGHT: I am concerned we may have ceded some of our moral high ground in this endeavor.
JOHNSON: Cartwright is the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, almost as high as a person can reach on the military ladder.
CARTWRIGHT: In several areas around the world, the drone, current drone policies have left us in a position where we are engendering more problems than we're solving.
JOHNSON: One of them may be Yemen, where Farea al-Muslimi is an activist and writer. Just six days ago, al-Muslimi said, an American drone struck his village. Al-Muslimi said he had warm memories of the U.S., where he studied for a year, managing the high school basketball team and trick-or-treating on Halloween. But others in Yemen don't have those experiences to draw on, he said.
FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: When they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.
JOHNSON: Another witness, Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, said of all the people killed by American drones, only a tiny percentage have been extremist leaders. Most of the casualties, he said, are lower-level figures or even civilians. But retired Air Force colonel Martha McSally said U.S. drones are far more precise than other tools. And she said they have plenty of checks and balances.
COLONEL MARTHA MCSALLY: A remotely piloted aircraft actually gives you better precision with a small warhead with persistence overhead, with the ability to abort at the last minute, with the whole chain of command and the lawyers watching.
JOHNSON: And South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who's been a critic of this White House, said he applauded the Obama administration for its aggressive and responsible approach to drones. Many of his colleagues remain uneasy. Senator Durbin said he'll have more hearings later this year. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.