Filibustering Drones

Boundaries to the U.S. Drone Program

by: Mauricio Barreto
Sophmore, Biology
Raleigh, NC

Just last month Senator Rand Paul performed a 12 hour and 53 minute filibuster in order to stall the vote for John Brennan as the director of the CIA. This filibuster came in hand with a critical debate about drones, both in their legality and general use in the United States. With this filibuster, Rand Paul formally challenged the current administrations use of drones, and the constitutional limitations that they seem to be overlooking.

Drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV’s), are remote controlled aerial systems equipped with missiles and used for surveillance and targeted killings. Initially a largely secretive military operation, the drone campaign in the United States has been a key asset in eradicating al Qaeda and its allies since the attack in New York on September 11th, 2001. In addition, this type of modern warfare has been a highly efficient weapon in targeting and eliminating suspected terrorists and fighting insurgencies around the world without putting soldiers’ lives at risk. One study estimates that nearly 95 percent of targeted killings since 9/11 have been through aerial drone strikes.

While the U.S. drone campaign has been in use for about a decade now, its use under the current administration has become both more common and more secretive. With drone campaigns in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, it seems as if these unmanned aircrafts are the main tool of choice for the Obama administration when it comes to national security. The Pentagon reports in having nearly 7,000 aerial drones in stock as compared to merely 50 a decade ago, and just last year the 2012 fiscal year budget included nearly 5 billion dollars for drone research, development, and procurement.

It is clear that a lot of resources and infrastructure is being put into drones, but many wonder just how often they are actually used. It was estimated in Pakistan that 100 strikes were order in 2010, and around 46 just last year. In addition there are other places such as Yemen with 46 strikes last year, and Pakistan with seven strikes in the first two weeks of the year 2013. With drone strikes on the rise, and the miniscule amount of information we have on them, Americans such as Rand Paul are beginning to contest their very practice and the boundaries to their usage.

A study done by the New American Foundation has found that between 1,953 and 3,279 people have been killed by drones since 2004 with almost a fifth of them being non militants. Another study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism stated that the 363 drone strikes in Pakistan have killed anywhere between 2,634 and 3,468 people with as much as 800 of them being civilians. As if this were not grounds for an outcry, resistance to the drone program did not come into the public sphere until the Obama administration carried out a series of drone strike in Yemen that killed a total of three Americans whom were suspected of working with al Qaida.

It was because of this attack, and the death of these suspected American terrorist, that two Senators decided to take action against what they saw a breach in constitutional power and rights. Republican senator Rand Paul, and Democratic senator Ron Wyden joined forces and began pressuring the White House into disclosing more information about the drone program and what they were doing. In specific Wyden remarked, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them”. After all this, democratic senator Jay Rockefeller confronted the president over the administrations refusal to show the congressional intelligence committees Justice Department office of legal counsel the memos that would justify the use of lethal force, such as drones, against an American suspect abroad or at home.

The White House’s initial response to the pressure being put on them was quite disturbing. A message released by Attorney General Eric Holder argued that, “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,” in a statement released from the White House. This language prompted a stark backlash from the public, and is what instigated Rand Paul’s thirteen-hour filibuster. For the first time in our history, the president was claiming the right to kill an American, on American soil, without due process.

As Senator Angus King put it, “It just makes me uncomfortable that the president, whoever it is, is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner, all rolled into one”. This issue is not just about the legality of the use of drones; this is about one person having the ability to act executively, legislatively, and judicially without any sort of checks or balances. This is about extending supreme rights to one individual, something our founding fathers vowed to never let happen. Although after the filibuster, Eric Holder released a statement deciding to revoke his previous statement we know for a fact that this was in the mindset of the administration.

The Obama administration should, and must be clearer in its language and presentation of UAV’s, and must realize the legal constraints to its use. The debate for the military usage of drones is one thing, but this is a debate on the fundamental rights that we hold so dear. No one person should have the ability to have the sole power that this administration has tried to proclaim, and it is dangerously alarming that such a thing has happened.

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