WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s policy of using unmanned drone attacks in Yemen, including an attack that killed a Colorado State graduate, has received an unusual response from the Colorado members of the House of Representatives. Only one member has gone on the record to voice an opinion about it.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Lone Tree) announced Wednesday that he endorses the administration’s tactic of using unmanned vehicles to kill suspected al-Qaeda militants. “I support the decision by President Obama that allows the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of the individuals who may be killed is not known,” he said in a prepared statement. “It makes sense that if you have firm intelligence that al Qaeda operatives are meeting at a certain time and at a specific location that the CIA and JSOC have the authority to strike at that target without having to identify a specific terrorist leader, by name, beforehand.”
A member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine Corps combat veteran, Coffman has been outspoken about foreign-policy issues. He has urged the State Department to stop negotiating directly with North Korea and has proposed pulling all four of the Army brigade combat teams out of Europe. In addition, he traveled to Afghanistan on November 20 and 21.
While Coffman has raised his profile, his House colleagues in the state delegation have either lowered theirs or declined to speak on the record about the administration’s policy of drone strikes. Their spokespersons did not respond to two separate requests over the past few days to discuss the issue. The lawmakers flew back to Colorado late last week for a week-long congressional recess.
The lawmakers’ reticence contrasts with the leaders of the presidential wings of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Obama counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan spoke publicly for the first time about the administration’s policy of drone strikes in a speech in Washington on Monday, while Obama addressed the nation about a pact he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to wind down the 11-year-old war. Republicans have criticized Obama for politicizing the one-year anniversary in which Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden.
Civil libertarians and some anti-war organizations have condemned the use of remote-controlled drones against suspected al-Qaeda fighters because an undetermined percentage of those killed are unarmed civilians. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American who graduated from Colorado State with a civil engineering degree in 1994, was identified by the CIA as an al-Qaeda leader of the Arabian Peninsula and assassinated by a missile launched from a drone last September.
For political analysts, members of Congress’ reserve about the drone strikes mirrors those of the broader public and their particular constituencies.
Nathan Gonzalez, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said most voters are more concerned about the domestic economy. “I think the economy is issue number one, two, and three. It is so engrained in these members’ brains that everything else fades quickly into the background,” he said.
Ken Bickers, chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that members of Congress are not taking heat from their parties’ coalitions about the drone strikes. “They tend to stay away from foreign policy until their public opinion is crystallized or their base is crystallized. It is not likely this is going to be a key campaign issue. Most people support these strikes,” he said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll bears out Bickers’ statement. In February, it found that 83 percent approved of the administration’s drone policy.
The poll also found that 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats support drone strikes. Bickers said that some anti-war organizations, who had demonstrated against the Bush administration’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan, were being inconsistent by not protesting the Obama administration’s policy more publicly. “I have not seen Code Pink attack Obama on this,” he said of the organization that used street-theater tactics to oppose the administration’s handling of the war.
Code Pink’s co-founder, Medea Benjamin, interrupted counterterrorism advisor Brennan’s speech Monday and was escorted from the theater. A call to the organization was not returned.