On Wednesday March 6th, Rand Paul filibustered President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan for Director of the CIA.
He filibustered the nomination of John Brennan because of Brennan’s key role as an architect of the drone program. Specifically though it was to make a statement about President Obama’s potential overreach of office in granting himself the right to kill American citizens without due process.
Rand Paul began his 12 to 13-hour filibuster as follows:
“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
He said so in response to the following answer from Attorney General Eric Holder on inquiries into the President’s powers with regard to the usage of drones:
“‘It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the President could conceivably have no choice’ but to authorize strikes in the case of a second Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack, in which case Holder would ‘examine the particular fact and circumstances before advising the President on the scope of his authority.’” (See source article)
In carrying out this filibuster Rand Paul did two things at once; he built on the already growing discussion surrounding the use of drones, and he forced the President to give a clear answer on a vague position which was extremely unprincipled.
Soon after Press Secretary Jay Carney relayed the following answer from Eric Holder to clear up the confusion which created the filibustered 12-hour question:
“Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no.” (See source article)
This dispute concluded with a favorable response from the White House. However, I do believe the entire debate may have been somewhat short-sighted. Though it makes sense why Rand Paul did the filibuster it’s very unlikely he thought there was a high probability President Obama would actually start killing American citizens en mass, with drone strikes and hellfire missiles, without due process. He unfortunately did create a bit of hysteria over the internet as there were many memes which took the issue to the extreme.
The most positive outcome from this filibuster, and the frenzy surrounding, is we’ve established for ourselves; we don’t think the President should have the authority to kill American citizens without due process with drones. Good. What does need to be discussed more now is how we feel about these drone strikes being carried out in other countries. Paul didn’t address this issue very much and didn’t seem to disagree with the policy either during his filibuster. In fact he even seemed to say, in the case of domestic policy, after due process a drone killing of an American citizen might be justified. This is strange to say a drone strike on an American citizen on domestic soil is justified but at the same time, he had to sustain the filibuster somehow. It’s also unlikely he expected the President to bomb Jane Fonda, or to interrupt our lunch breaks at work with hellfire missiles; but he did mention these scenarios as possibilities.
Absurdities aside he did offer a few indirect criticisms of the drone policy on foreign soil. He referenced Eric Holder’s original response of how some “extreme circumstances” may justify the President’s authorization of a drone strike on a US citizen. Paul then discussed how, overseas, the drone strikes have not always been used for “extreme circumstances.” He finished this remark by wondering how the leniency in foreign policy might translate to domestic policy?
The President responded shortly after the filibuster that the drone strikes would not be used on American citizens without due process. However, as Rand Paul already alluded to the sometimes sketchy usage of drone strikes on foreign soil, let’s think about it…
About how many people had been killed by drone strikes as of February 2, 2013? According to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, about 4700. To compare sources on this “The figure cited by Graham matches the high end of a tally by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It says the number killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is between 3,072 and 4,756.” (See source article)
So now we have a figure of about how many people have been killed since Feb 2. What about the number of drones strikes used in the first place? “The Washington-based New America Foundation says there have been 350 US drone strikes since 2004, most of them during Barack Obama’s presidency. And the foundation estimates the death toll at between 1,963 and 3,293, with 261 to 305 civilians killed.” Thus we also have the number of civilians killed by drone strikes. (Same source article)
While it seems the death toll varies depending on whether your source is a senator, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or the Washington-based New America Foundation; there seems to be a consensus that the number is roughly at least 2000 people. This means, based on what seems to be about the approximate minimum number of deaths from 2004 to the end of 2012 (for example) there have been 250 drone strikes every year out of a possible 365 days in which to carry out a single strike.
To get a better picture of these drone strikes let’s remember how the study by the New America Foundation said the majority of the strikes have been carried out during Barack Obama’s presidency. True, there is no actual figure given in this assessment but it is worth noting that the President took office in 2009. This means the original figure, which allowed for total people killed over a period of 8 years needs to be adjusted to 4 years. So, hypothetically speaking, if the approximate minimum number of people killed by drone strikes, 2000, (which is less than half the number the Senator mentioned, 4700) were carried out over a period of 4 years, this means over a 365-day year there were 500 people killed. Mind you, this figure of 500 is derived from a number less than half of the number mentioned by the Senator, which means the actual number of people killed each year by drone strikes ordered by President Obama needs to be considerably more to account for a majority of the potential 4700.
What about who the drone strikes have been used for…
One man, Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico was killed by a drone strike. He “became well known for his fiery anti-American sermons posted throughout the Internet.” Another man Samir Khan, “who’d lived in both New York and Charlotte, N.C., produced a magazine called ‘Inspire’ that became known for its extreme Jihadist views.” (See reference article) Both of these men had links to terrorist groups. Therefore, even though neither was given due process the case can theoretically be made that overseas drone killings of terrorists might have been justified for them if they were “up to no good” (no matter how unconstitutional).
Overseas drone strikes become sketchy though when you discuss people like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. He was the victim of a drone strike as well. The only difference is he was 16 when he was killed in Yemen. The “Family of the Denver-born teenager say he had no ties to terrorist organizations and was unjustly targeted because of his father.” In December, Nassar al-Awlaki (Anwar’s father and Abdulrahman’s grandfather) told CNN, “In Anwar it was expected because he was under targeted killing, but how in the world they will go and kill Abdulrahman. Small boy, U.S. citizen from Denver, Colorado.”
“Nassar al-Awlaki said his grandson snuck out of their Yemen home one night, leaving a note for his mother saying he would return in a few days. The boy never returned, killed instead while eating at an outdoor restaurant.” Nassar also said “I took care of him, and suddenly after 2 year absence from his father, he decided to go to our government in Yemen to seek information from his father. That was the only reason he went, and he did not tell us.” (See source article)
The targets of these attacks have not always been so selective. “The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.”
“The findings are published just days after President Obama claimed that the drone campaign in Pakistan was a ‘targeted, focused effort’ that ‘has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties’….”
“A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.”
The above quotes are from a Salon article from February 2, 2012. The article further states how “There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama’s administration – averaging one every four days.” Keep in mind, the Al-Jazeera article about Senator Graham’s remark came out about 1 year later. In that article the number of drones strikes reported was 350.
Now is an appropriate time to discuss another potential impact of the United State’s drone program: international stability.
“The US policy of using aerial drones to carry out targeted killings presents a major challenge to the system of international law that has endured since the second world war, a United Nations investigator has said.” “Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva that President Obama’s attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards.”
“Some states, he added, ‘find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future … Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it’s recognized as being an armed conflict.’” “Heyns ridiculed the US suggestion that targeted UAV strikes on AL-Qaida or allied groups were a legitimate response to the 9/11 attacks. ‘It’s difficult to see how any killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to [events] in 2001,’ he said. ‘Some states seem to want to invent new laws to justify new practices.’” (See source article)
Another potential impact of these drone strikes is the birth of more terrorist cells. Samiullah Khan, a field researcher from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism explained:
“In a war situation no one is allowed to attack the Red Cross. Rescuers are like that. You are not allowed to attack rescuers. You know, the number of Taliban is increasing in Waziristan day by day, because innocents and rescuers are being killed day by day.” (See source article)
Could the potential birth of new terrorist cells cause us to fear future possibilities and then support more drone killings? Yes. However when we realize that (at least in this case) the growth of new terrorist cells is because of the United States’ attacks on civilians in other countries, the more reasoned solution would be to stop the attacks in general. We should not give in to fear and attack more.
To be fair, even before Senator Paul’s filibuster drone strikes were a topic of conversation. All Senator Paul really did was make the topic more mainstream. However, there is a new report that suggests complications to this conversation. “With debate intensifying in the United States over the use of drone aircraft, the U.S. military said on Sunday that it had removed data about air strikes carried out by unmanned planes in Afghanistan from its monthly air power summaries.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Afghanistan war, said in a statement the data had been removed because it was “disproportionately focused” on the use of weapons by the remotely piloted aircraft as it was published only when strikes were carried out – which happened during only 3 percent of sorties. Most missions were for reconnaissance, it said.” (See source article)
True the focus of the discussions was on the usage of armed drones. However, even if the strikes were carried out during only 3 percent of the sorties this doesn’t mean information on drone strikes should be made less available overall. Besides, it seems appropriate that information about drone surveillance be made just as available as information about drone strikes. As drone strikes are invariably funded by taxpayer dollars, the taxpayers have a right to see how their government uses their money.
This pretty much covers the issues surrounding drone strikes and their controversial nature. There is however, another issue which seems to have been ignored by most in John Brennan’s nomination for director of the CIA. Brennan was not just a key architect in the drone program, he “has also been at the heart of two other high-profile national security controversies. One was the CIA’s torture program, which Brennan was aware of but did not object to during the Bush administration. The other is warrant-less wiretapping.” (See source article)
The last issue to address is Senator Rand Paul’s voting record. It should be made clear how, while this filibuster was very important to start a conversation on drone strikes, Sen. Paul’s record is not nearly as progressive as the resulting discussion. The twitter hashtag which went viral on the day of his filibuster read “#standwithrand.” I want to make it clear how while I “Stand With Rand” on the issue he filibustered, I do not stand with him on most other issues at all.
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