Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.
Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:
PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.
CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?
PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.
That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.
As of this writing, Senator Rand Paul is still on his feet filibustering the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA. But as he eventually made clear, his goal is not so much to actually stop Brennan, as it is to make a meal of the comments made this morning by Attorney General Eric Holder when he was pressed about U.S. policies on drone strikes on terrorists during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When asked whether the government considered it had the right to use an armed drone on an American citizen within the borders of the United States, Holder didn’t give the senators a straight answer. They were entitled to such an answer, as well as to the documents they requested. But those who are now saying that the dustup over using drones in the United States is the sole point of Paul’s filibuster hasn’t been listening closely to him as he held the Senate floor.
Paul and other members of the Senate (including several Republicans and Democrat Ron Wyden) who assisted his filibuster by asking questions to give him brief breaks have a point when it comes to the possible use of drones on U.S. citizens in America. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances when using the same tactics being used on al-Qaeda operatives in the Middle East here at home would be justified. As I wrote earlier, invoking Adolf Hitler and George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in a discussion of current counter-terrorism strategies is inflammatory and misleading. But there is little doubt that operations in the homeland must be conducted differently, starting with the fact that the CIA is not empowered to act in the United States.
Yet even if we concede that, as we should, Paul’s real beef is something else. The attempt to shift the discussion about drones to the fanciful suggestion that the Justice Department might target Tea Party members is a red herring. Paul’s core objection to the drone program remains what he calls the “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists.
Senator Rand Paul is at this moment on his feet in the U.S. Senate rekindling memories of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. The Kentucky senator is doing a filibuster the old fashioned way: non-stop talking and refusing to yield the floor in order to delay a vote on the confirmation of John Brennan as director of the C.I.A. Like the fictional Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Paul will keep going until he literally drops. The C-Span feed from the Senate does not show the apple and the thermos of coffee that Mr. Smith relied upon to keep going but I imagine if, as Stewart did in the movie, the Kentuckian starts reading the Constitution of the United States very slowly, Majority Leader Harry Reid will forget about getting the Senate back to business anytime soon.
Whether you consider this is an edifying spectacle or merely a political sideshow may depend up on your point of view about the reason why Paul has decided to prevent a vote on Brennan. There are good reasons for senators to oppose his bid to run the intelligence agency. But Paul’s belief that the president’s determination to carry the fight against Al Qaeda via drone strikes is a threat to American civil liberties is misplaced. Attempting to hamstring the ability of the government to carry on a foreign war is not defending the rule of law.
With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.
There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.
Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.
Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.
But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)
I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.
But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.
President Obama has promised to bring the perpetrators of the Benghazi terrorist attack to justice, but over two weeks after the attack the FBI still hasn’t made it to Benghazi. According to the New York Times, it’s because the security situation in Benghazi is too unstable:
Sixteen days after the death of four Americans in an attack on a United States diplomatic mission here, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept F.B.I. agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the complicated crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.
Investigators are so worried about the tenuous security, people involved in the investigation say, that they have been unwilling to risk taking some potential Libyan witnesses into the American Embassy in Tripoli. Instead, the investigators have resorted to the awkward solution of questioning some witnesses in cars outside the embassy, which is operating under emergency staffing and was evacuated of even more diplomats on Thursday because of a heightened security alert.
There are conflicting reports about whether Badruddin Haqqani, a senior commander in the Haqqani network founded by his father Jalaluddin and led by his elder brother Sirajuddin, has been killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan. Afghan and Pakistani intelligence officials believe he is dead, and so does at least one Taliban commander, but another Taliban spokesman denies it. We will see if there is more definitive evidence forthcoming soon.
If he is indeed dead, it is a small but significant victory against the most malign terrorist organization operating in Afghanistan–a group responsible for the worst attacks in Kabul itself. The Long War Journal reports: “Badruddin was also one of several handlers for the fighters involved in the June 28, 2011 assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Badruddin was recorded while he issued instructions to one of the fighters, and was heard laughing during the attack that killed 11 civilians and two Afghan policemen as well as nine members of the attack team.”
The major criticism of drone strikes–the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy especially in Pakistan and Yemen–is that they cause too many civilian casualties, thereby creating more militants than they eliminate. A new study from the New America Foundation disputes that conclusion.
Authors Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland write: “The estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50 percent. Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.” Their finding is based on analyzing three years’ worth of data in news sources ranging from Reuters and the New York Times to the Express Tribune and Dawn in Pakistan.
Any compilation based on such open-source materials must necessarily be suspect. But then counting casualties from the drone strikes is necessarily an inexact science–Washington has an interest in minimizing the figures while jihadists have an interest in maximizing them. Perhaps there is a better count out there, but I’m not aware of it. If the New America Foundation’s conclusion is accurate, the reduction in collateral damage is a tribute to better technology (e.g., drones that can linger longer over their targets and use better sensors to identify them), better intelligence gathering, and better controls over these strikes.
This is yet another reason why the strikes cannot be stopped–they are the most effective tool to combat Islamist terrorism in areas such as Pakistan and Yemen where U.S. troops are not deployed en masse. Indeed, far from curtailing them, I believe it is imperative to extend the strikes to towns such as Chaman, located near the border with Afghanistan, which is a major staging point for the Taliban–but has been off bounds so far for the drone strikes because it is located outside the tribal areas of Pakistan. That needs to change if the U.S. is going to sufficiently degrade the insurgency to allow U.S. troop numbers to be reduced by 2014 without a catastrophic collapse in security.
“Taliban to Kids: Drop Dead.” That would be the headline in the NY Daily News or some other tabloid. The New York Times has a more staid approach: “Taliban Block Vaccinations in Pakistan.” But the news contained therein is no less shocking and contemptible: the Pakistani Taliban are going to block UNICEF-administered polo vaccinations in North Waziristan until the U.S. stops its drone attacks in Pakistan which have been heavily focused on North Waziristan.
The Taliban have some small shred of cover for this move due to the fact that the CIA recruited a doctor undertaking vaccinations to try to locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout. (That doctor, Shakil Afridi, is now languishing in a Pakistani jail for the “crime” of helping to uncover a mass murderer.) This fact, along with many others, underlines how deeply intertwined al-Qaeda is with other Pakistan-based radical groups, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. And it also shows how heartless these groups are.
News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.
AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.
David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.
Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.