Did Rand Paul fear-monger in filibuster?

The emphasis by Sen. Rand Paul on cafe drone strikes on US soil came across to some critics as a lost opportunity to talk about other actual dangers in the expanding use of unmanned aircraft to target terror suspects.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director early Thursday.

Did Rand Paul in his filibuster this week mischaracterize administration policy on drone strikes, willfully or otherwise? That’s a question raising lots of expert discussion in Washington and the national-security blogosphere at the moment.

The talkathon by the GOP's junior senator from Kentucky won him lots of attention and kudos from libertarians and leftists alike. As we noted Thursday, it could well have boosted his 2016 presidential hopes and made him a rising national political star.

But some experts complain Senator Paul was sounding a clarion warning about a danger that doesn’t exist.

Long story short, Paul’s main point was that he wanted clarification about the administration’s policy regarding use of armed drones against US citizens within the United States. He said that Attorney General Eric Holder had, in essence, said that the administration had no plans to do that but could foresee extraordinary circumstances where it might be necessary.

“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,” Paul said at the filibuster’s start. “That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Ky., is an abomination.”

The cafe reference was what drove some critics wild. The Washington Post editorialized that this was a “paranoid fantasy." Mr. Holder and others had made clear that the exceptional circumstances they were discussing involved a 9/11-like scenario. Given a warlike situation on domestic soil, the US could respond with all the weapons it could muster, in the White House view.

“From that answer, Mr. Paul and allies such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) somehow concocted the absurd notion that Americans 'sitting quietly in cafes' could be blasted by Hellfire missiles. No, they couldn’t be, as Mr. Holder made clear in a letter to Mr. Paul on Thursday,” the Post editorialized.

Worse, by distorting the dangers inherent in drone warfare, Paul missed an opportunity to confront other actual dangers about the nation’s expanding use of unmanned aircraft to target terror suspects, according to other critics.

For instance, what about the administration’s demonstrated willingness to target American citizens overseas with drones? That’s the general issue raised by the targeted killing of radical cleric and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, as well as the death of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, in another drone attack two weeks later. (The US has indicated the teenager was an inadvertent target caught next to more-important Al Qaeda-linked figures.)

The administration apparently has a broad definition of the dangers that terror suspects must pose to be targeted in drone warfare. How is the target list developed? How imminent must suspected terror actions be to warrant a drone response?

“Debate ought to focus on what’s actually at stake, not some implausible parade of horribles involving non-threatening people at coffeehouses or Vietnam-era peace activists. In opting for the later approach, Senators Cruz and Paul needlessly cheapen a worthy and exceedingly important debate,” write legal experts Wells Bennett and Alan Rozenshtein at the Lawfare national-security blog.

Paul’s defenders note that this debate is already occurring – and that what the Kentucky libertarian has done is kick it up a notch, bringing it far more national attention than it has been getting.

Prior to Holder’s Thursday letter, administration policy in this area had been vague, writes The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. By refusing to settle for imprecise statements, Paul has in fact accomplished something, in Mr. Friedersdorf’s view.

“His success means that it will be harder for any future president to argue that he or she can kill Americans not engaged in combat,” Friedersdorf writes.

This argument is not about the possible behavior of the Obama administration per se, but about limiting all future presidents, according to Paul’s defenders. It may be a “paranoid fantasy” to think that a chief executive might attack an American sitting at a cafe. But at one time, it might also have been a paranoid fantasy to think a president would use the FBI as a tool against personal enemies or to cover up Watergate break-ins done in his name, as did Richard Nixon.

Similarly, Friedersdorf points to the Bush administration’s defense of enhanced interrogation techniques that many label “torture."

“Now I’ll take every specific executive-branch statement of what the law doesn’t permit that I can get,” he concludes.

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