Last week’s filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was a welcome sight. In temporarily holding up the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, Paul drew much-needed attention to the dangers of the Obama administration’s drone policy.
He noted that the Obama administration had already killed U.S. citizens with drones overseas. He alerted us all to the risk that a president might order a drone strike on U.S. citizens here at home. And he demanded to know what constitutional basis there was for such an action, and why U.S. citizens weren’t entitled to due process and a trial by jury.
When Paul left the floor after 13 hours, the filibuster ended and Brennan was confirmed.
The questions, however, still remain.
Brennan, in his previous position as one of the top counterterrorism advisers in the Obama administration, asserted that the drone strike killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was justified because he was a “legitimate military target” and because the executive branch, in Brennan’s view, had the authority to designate such targets and whether they constituted a threat to the country.
Brennan made no mention of the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution, whose prohibition against the “arbitrary denial of life liberty or property by the government without the sanction of law” seems to point precisely to the unconstitutionality and illegality of the president ordering death by drone.
Just as troubling is Brennan’s redefinition of what constitutes a “casualty” when it comes to drone strikes. As reported by the New York Times, the Obama administration “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants” unless there is explicit evidence to posthumously prove them innocent.
What this means is that everyone killed in a drone strike in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan is unilaterally defined as a combatant by the United States simply by the virtue of their presence in the area selected as a target by drone operators. Under this definition, it is impossible for there ever to be any civilian casualties caused by drone strikes at all — hence making drones a cost-free way to engage in the hunt of terrorists without ever having to deal with the political cost of casualties.
Given this context, Brennan’s reticence at his confirmation hearing was not surprising.
The political divisions of the U.S. Senate worked neatly in Brennan's favor with Democratic senators unwilling to push him too hard on the secret details of remote control killing. While Paul tried to push harder with his filibuster, his pressing for answers failed to receive widespread support from within the Republican Party.
The result: the anointing of a man in an immensely powerful position who believes that a remote control policy of assassinations is the best policy for this country.
We all may regret his confirmation.
Rafia Zakaria is on the board of directors of Amnesty International. She is a lawyer and a political science Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University. She can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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