Rand Paul Hijacks Discussion on Drones

Sen. Rand Paul put drones in the headlines this week with his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan's nomination as CIA director. But instead of helping us weigh the many important questions surrounding use of the unmanned weapons, the Kentucky Republican only succeeded in focusing attention on one cartoonish point.

Paul's stand on the Senate floor, which ended when he had to go pee (the second time in a month a Republican orator was undone by water), was provoked by the reply to a question he posed to Brennan in a February letter. Paul had asked if "the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without a trial."

Attorney General Eric Holder gave the administration's answer in a March 4 letter, saying "it was possible, I suppose" that a president "might authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States." He never used the word "drone."

Paul thought Holder's reply was evasive, and filibustered in protest, repeatedly pushing the absurd idea that the White House might punish its critics by killing them with drones as they slept in their beds or sipped coffee at a cafe. At one point he asked: "Are you just going to drop a drone ... on Jane Fonda ... or on those at Kent State?"

Yes, sometimes government agents kill Americans in America without a trial. Police might do it in pursuit of a suspect. The government might shoot down a plane aiming to crash into a school.

But it doesn't attack its political opponents with drones that contain weapons.

Paul's loopy and paranoid remarks were applauded by some on the right, and even a few on the left, such as the ACLU and Code Pink, but they infuriated others, including two of his Republican colleagues.

Sen. John McCain said the conversation shouldn't be "about drones killing Jane Fonda or people in cafes" in the U.S., and that Paul's ranting had done "a disservice to a lot of Americans" by promoting groundless fears.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Paul's question didn't even deserve an answer and "cheapens the debate" about drones.

That debate involves an array of concerns, some of which have yet to receive much public attention, but none of which involve zapping Americans strolling down Main Street.

Foremost, the debate is about the use of drones in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are used to kill suspected terrorists, including some American citizens. Is that constitutional? Should the president's power to order such killings be subject to checks and balances? Does it violate international law?

Furthermore, there is evidence that U.S. drone strikes abroad have killed innocent civilians, which can happen when drone operators target "behavior" and not individuals. For example, a drone might be aimed at a truck because terrorist fighters travel in trucks. But sometimes those suspicious trucks are actually transporting farmers or children.

Others appropriately worry, as did one Army chaplain, that drones make war "safer and easier," and that as soldiers are "removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide."

We must also prepare for the next generation of drone weaponry, the inevitable development of "smart drones," capable of making their own decisions about when and whom to attack - a Gort that can fly, to recall a certain 1951 science-fiction movie.

These are important and complicated questions. Asking if President Obama is going to launch a drone at John Cusack is not.

Should we be concerned about the use of drones here at home?

Yes - but not because the government might weaponize them to kill us, but rather equip them to spy on us.

Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press wrote this week about the "increasing number of drones ... taking to U.S. skies." Smaller and less sophisticated than the military versions, these units can be outfitted with "high-powered cameras, microphones, infrared devices and various other high-tech tools."

Zaniewski notes that a recent federal law made it easier for public agencies, like police departments, to acquire drone licenses and also "paved the way for commercial use."

Michigan State Rep. Tom McMillin is writing legislation to address his concern about potential abuses as such drones grow in numbers and capability.

"The bill is really designed to make sure that we're protecting people's rights," McMillin told Zaniewski. "We don't want Big Brother flying over watching all our activities." Zaniewski says 24 other states are considering similar laws.

The public is also waking up. "Police in Seattle recently scrapped plans to use two high-tech drones following protests from residents," Zaniewski writes.

So if you want to talk about drones, there are plenty of worthy issues to tackle, both in terms of our embrace of them in wars abroad, and the developing challenges they pose to civil liberties here at home.

But Paul hijacked the discussion and, in line with his numerous references to "Alice in Wonderland," dragged it through the looking glass.

As a moment of political theater, it was entertaining.

But hardly enlightening.

Rich Lewis, a former reporter and editor, teaches at Dickinson College. He can be reached at His column appears Sundays in The Sentinel (Carlisle, PA).

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