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.
Most Americans understand that limiting American attacks on terrorists to those actively in the field shooting at American soldiers in Afghanistan or those caught in the act of carrying out an attack on other targets anywhere else is not sensible. Al-Qaeda operatives must be hunted down and, if possible, killed wherever they are, be it in their hideouts, while driving a car or sitting in a public venue. Most also have no problem with such tactics being applied to U.S. citizens who have joined al-Qaeda and are actively taking part in a war on America.
But Paul does seem to oppose the drone strikes. Indeed, anyone who heard all or most of his several hours of talk on the subject heard a great deal that shows he thinks the “perpetual war” against the Islamists is the real problem.
The unfortunate fact is that Americans will have to continue fighting al-Qaeda. This is not because our leaders lust for war or are enraptured with drone technology, but because our enemies believe they are engaged in war that will go on for generations until we succumb. Winning that struggle will require patience and endurance as well as the will to seek out these enemies wherever they may be plotting. Targeted killings of these terrorists are necessary and effective. But Paul’s core critique of the administration is not about a theoretical drone attack in the United States but about this very tactic.
Those who worry about Barack Obama’s fast and loose approach to the Constitution do well to keep close tabs on what the government is up to. But the president’s drone use against al-Qaeda is both constitutional and necessary. Conflating this policy with a plan to kill American dissidents or non-combatants sleeping in their beds here is merely a tactic aimed at transforming the debate about drones in a way that will make the curtailment of foreign strikes possible.
We can all take pride in the willingness of members of the U.S. Senate to stand up for the Bill of Rights and against the unchecked expansion of government power. But today’s filibuster is rooted in Paul’s unhappiness with American counter-terrorism tactics abroad, not those that have never been used at home.