Rand Paul’s filibuster and the drone controversy
Rand Paul’s rare 13-hour “talking” filibuster last Wednesday on the Senate floor protesting the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director reinvigorated the the debate over US drone policy internationally — and now domestically—for policy makers and informed citizens alike.
Though a 63-34 vote passed in favor of Brennan, the Senate was far from subdued as Paul’s act of defiance sparked new debate concerning Obama’s refusal to rule out US citizens on US soil as potential drone targets.
Paul’s filibuster serves as a reminder that even in an age when Americans rarely question their freedom, we are still endowed with the duty to protect our constitutional rights as citizens and constituents. Or, at the very least, to pressure our elected representatives to take on the task. That’s what they’re there for in the first place, right?
Moral dilemmas aside, Rand Paul called attention to an increasingly expanding American counter-terrorism strategy that, as of a letter from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. details, the Obama Administration has refused to rule out the use of drone strikes on domestic soil against US citizens.
To date, no such attack has occurred on US soil, but the possibility is certainly not out of the question. Changes in policy lead to changes in practice. Paul’s filibuster comes just two years after President Obama ordered the killing of natural born US citizen Al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaqi.
Al-Awlaqi was the victim of a drone strike in Yemen, his death the result of a manhunt beginning over a decade ago. Samir Khan, also a US citizen and editor of an English Al-Qaeda propaganda publication, was also killed in the strike. However, officials have confirmed that he was not a direct target. Al-Awlaki’s son was killed a month later in the same desert, searching for his father who had mysteriously disappeared.
Regardless of their ties to extremist organizations, the death of both individuals raises questions that Rand Paul clearly believes are important. How much do we as American citizens question the authority of those in power, and, as a result, how far will our politicians and leaders extend their power without our awareness? Though this may seem far too broad a query, it is a question that needs to be raised and answered.
If the President can order the direct killing of three US citizens (though not on US soil), how far does executive power truly extend? Theoretically, any US citizen could be the target of a drone strike. Especially as rapidly surging technological advancements lift surveillance capabilities to a level that even George Orwell would have difficulty imagining, there is no way of knowing the true potential of the military or CIA.
This quandary brings us to a new level of moral uncertainty. The US government and civilian surveillance agencies have worked tirelessly in the name of national security, but as their efforts begin to infringe on constitutional rights, when is enough, enough? The case of Al-Awlaki, however seemingly inapplicable to a domestic comparison it may be, stands as a useful case study. Under the constitution, Al-Awlaki had the right to a trial by jury of his peers, and was innocent until proven guilty. He may have been active in terrorist groups abroad, but he possessed those rights nonetheless. It would have been legally sound to arrange for his capture (which, is clearly possible given our military’s capabilities) and bring him back to the US for proper legal procedures. The fact that the President himself willingly cast aside Al-Awlak’s rights in favor of an “easier” solution is revealing of the dangerous mindset our leaders carry concerning national security.
Obama has been hailed by many as “the leader of the free world,” and during his first term he demonstrated his eagerness to distance himself from the policies of the Bush era as much as possible. His effort to wrap up the conflict in Iraq and bring troops home from both theaters however, is a reminder that he may not be as far away politically from Bush and Cheney as it may seem. His public persona provides a nice distraction from a clearly expanding domestic national security strategy. As drone strikes began to extend into Mexico beyond the border earlier this year, the executive branch and the related civilian agencies have made clear their lack of intention to limit their use of unmanned aerial surveillance and ordinance.
As the president begins the third month of his second term, the national security strategy is of great concern. As activity ramps up domestically, we must become more aware of the infringements on our freedoms. Such infringements are cleverly veiled under the guise that they are “in everyone’s best interest,” but when measures to “protect” citizens have now turned into measures of eliminating citizens, they can no longer remain unmitigated.
The “leader of the free world” has disregarded the rights of his own people, and elected representatives like Rand Paul clearly will not stand for it. Though there is no clear way forward, the activity of the executive branch must not proceed unmonitored. Pick up a newspaper, turn on your TV, open your laptop. Inform yourself, because you never know when that predator drone might have your own face centered in its crosshairs.
Jason Wilber is a junior politics and international studies major. Email him at jwilber1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.