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Why Rand’s Drone Flip-Flop Matters

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.

Subsequent to his appearance on Cavuto, Paul’s office issued a statement that claimed that there had been no flip-flop. As Politico reports:

In his statement Tuesday, Paul clarified his remarks, saying that drones should only be “considered in extraordinary, lethal situations.”

“Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster. Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets,” Paul said in the statement.

Paul may claim, and his legion of followers who think he can do or say no wrong will agree, that this does not contradict his filibuster stand. But it does.

The whole point of the filibuster, which he repeated many times on the floor of the Senate during the course of his memorable performance, was that though he didn’t believe the Obama administration would use its power to suppress dissent or kill innocent Americans, some future government might do so. That’s why he took the position that the use of drone attacks here was simply off the table as unconstitutional–no matter what the circumstances.

Though I am no fan of Eric Holder, it was precisely the possibility of an “ongoing, lethal situation” that caused him to be reluctant to say that drones could never be used against a U.S. citizen at home. Paul tried to distort that position into one that posed the possibility that a future U.S. government might use a drone to knock off its political opponents or a Jane Fonda-style dissident, but that was an absurd interpretation of an entirely reasonable unwillingness to rule out the use of lethal force against a dangerous terrorist or criminal.

Paul may pretend there is no parallel between what he endorsed on Cavuto and the use of government force that he declared in the Senate to be a threat to our liberties, but it is a distinction without a difference. Lulled by a desire to show how tough he was on terrorists and criminals to say something about Boston, Paul committed a gaffe that illustrated the inconsistency of his position.

This kerfuffle won’t necessarily impact his run for the presidency in 2016, but it does illustrate that his drone obsession had more to do with his foreign policy views than a defense of the rule of law. The idea of using a theoretical drone attack on Americans in the U.S. as the point of the filibuster was a brilliant tactical decision since it allowed him to take the moral high ground that even attracted the support of some liberals. But Paul’s willingness to admit that there are scenarios where government can or even must use this power demonstrates that his oratory was all for show.

Rand Paul’s real problem with drones isn’t about their use in legitimate law enforcement activities at home but about their employment overseas against al-Qaeda terrorists. In his neo-isolationist view, the “perpetual war” against Islamists isn’t a good idea, and he wants it shut down even if the other side isn’t necessarily willing to call a cease-fire. There is good reason to believe that such views are becoming more popular in our war-weary nation, even with some Republicans. But his drone flip-flop yesterday makes it clear that his attempt to link that critique with possible abuses of civil liberties at home is more the product of science fiction or conspiracy theories than practical politics.

If Paul wants to talk about drones in the future, he should limit his comments to his views about the conflict with Islamist terrorists, which unfortunately opened up a new front in Boston last week. But after his appearance on Cavuto, Americans should have no patience with any further attempts on his part to claim their use at home is a matter of any real dispute.

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