Senator Rand Paul has generated a firestorm over his apparent flip-flop on drones used by the US government to kill American citizens on US soil.
Last month, Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor was the most sweeping denunciation of the Obama administration’s liberal use of drone warfare ever in Washington.
“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,” Rand declared.
That’s pretty unequivocal. But then, following the capture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Paul had a different attitude:
Paul’s support from anti-drone libertarians on the left and right, which had soared after the filibuster, seemed to crash down upon him in the wake of these comments. People were angry. So Paul released a statement. Here it is in full:
My comments last night left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed.
Let me be clear: it has not. Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster.
Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets.
Fighting terrorism and capturing terrorists must be done while preserving our constitutional protections. This was demonstrated last week in Boston. As we all seek to prevent future tragedies, we must continue to bear this in mind.
This is not exactly an illuminating explanation. Saying, “Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations,” one day after saying, “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him,” doesn’t make any sense. He didn’t repudiate his comments on Fox as a misstatement, he just argued the opposite of what he himself said mere hours before.
In the midst of the man-hunt for Tsarnaev, people became numb to the showy, militarized response to the crime in Boston. In such times, people tend to more readily give up their liberties. They tend to be more willing to grant government powers it previously didn’t have. Maybe Paul was caught up in the moment of the national crisis, swayed by the mass fervor.
Or maybe Paul got lost in his own political strategy. For a long time now, his modus operandi has supposedly been to pick and choose his battles, pressing the Republican Party in a more libertarian direction when it makes sense, while placating the right on other issues they’re not ready to move on yet. Maybe Paul just forgot which buttons he was pressing.
There might be other explanations, but unless his comments on Fox the other night were simply a fluke, this controversy doesn’t look good for Paul’s “principled stance on drones.”
Update I: It’s worth mentioning too that this controversy happened in tandem with Rand’s sudden decision not to attend a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legality of the drone war. He was supposed to attend, then his office said he had a scheduling conflict. I don’t doubt that that’s true, but given his 13-hour filibuster and its political aftermath, this hearing should have been a top priority for Rand. What could have been more important than following up his 13-hours of anti-drone rhetoric with an actual Senate hearing scrutinizing the President’s drone policies not just at home but abroad?
Update II: I’ve been informed that the drone hearing I mentioned in Update I was rescheduled three times, and that is the reason for Paul’s absence. Additionally, Paul’s office has posted a YouTube clip of his Senate filibuster in which he does indeed appear to be consistent with his Fox News comments on Monday.
Despite the apparent consistency, it is nevertheless confusing to hear him say that on the one hand “Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations,” but that the liquor store hypothetical is acceptable for lethal drones. A man leaving a convenient store with money from the register and a gun is perhaps the quintessential “normal crime situation” one can conjure up.
At the very least, Rand needs to lay out precisely when lethal drones can be used domestically and when they cannot – and what a “normal crime situation” is and what it isn’t. Once he does, it may very well be a disappointment to those that loved him for his filibuster.