The Common Good

DRONE WATCH: The Debate Begins

Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster last week against the administration’s drone policy brought a long-simmering debate to a full public boil. Although some have criticized him for “grandstanding,” the Kentucky Republican did all of us a favor. Issues and questions that had been raised primarily by progressive bloggers and peace groups are now in full public view and debate in the mainstream media.

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The New York Times carried front page stories both days this weekend. On Saturday, it highlighted the growing opposition to drones from across the political spectrum, writing that Sen. Paul’s filibuster had hit a “bipartisan nerve,” and:

“… animated a surprisingly diverse swath of political interests that includes mainstream civil liberties groups, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, conservative research groups, liberal activists and right-wing conspiracy theorists.”

On Sunday, the Times ran a major feature on how the CIA came to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Of his death by a drone strike, the Times wrote:     

“It was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, intense deliberation by lawyers working for President Obama and turf fights between the Pentagon and the C.I.A., whose parallel drone wars converged on the killing grounds of Yemen. For what was apparently the first time since the Civil War, the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen as a wartime enemy and without a trial.”

In the opinion pages, The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by Sen. Paul. He described the filibuster and the other senators who appeared on the Senate floor to support him, then explain his motive:

“I hope my efforts help spur a national debate about the limits of executive power and the scope of every American’s `natural right to be free. “Due process” is not just a phrase that can be ignored at the whim of the president; it is a right that belongs to every citizen in this great nation.”

Editorially, the Times went to the heart of the matter in urging the repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, used to justify the war in Afghanistan and now continuing operations against terrorist organizations. That problem, wrote the Times, is that:

“The concern that many, including this page, expressed about the authorization is coming true: that it could become the basis for a perpetual, ever-expanding war that undermined the traditional constraints on government power. The result is an unintelligible policy without express limits or protective walls.”

The unraveling of the secrecy that has surrounded the drone program, and the increasingly robust debate that is now proceeding are welcome developments. Many opponents of drone killings have argued for transparency as a first step toward accountability. It looks like that step may be underway, but it is only a first step. Paul’s speech focused on the narrow question of whether a U.S. citizen could be killed by a drone inside the U.S. The administration finally answered, no. But although he mentioned it, Paul did not fully address the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen, or other countries to kill non-U.S. citizens. That debate also must occur.

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners.

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