Civil Liberties

Rand Paul's Wrong on Drones -- Just Like Everything Else

Paul's critique comes straight from the fetid fever swamps of the conspiratorial right.

Photo Credit: photo: Mother Jones

Rand Paul's dramatic, 13-hour drone strike of a filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate certainly stirred up the "Obama Wars" among progressives. The conventional take is that Paul was right on this one issue -- the proverbial "stopped clock" -- and those who refused to "stand with Paul" were unwilling to concede that he was right, due to their allegiance to the president.

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But Paul couldn't be more wrong about drones, and largely lost in the discussion is the fact that his position is identical to that of the White House.

In a letter to Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that the United States government has no legal authority to use armed drones in domestic situations, but conceded that he could imagine a possible scenario in which it would be lawful to avert a truly imminent and "catastrophic" threat. During his filibuster, Paul said: "Nobody questions, if planes are flying towards the Twin Towers, whether they can be repulsed by the military; nobody questions whether, [if] a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled."

And, like the White House, Paul supports the use of (presumably unarmed) drones to patrol the border.

More importantly, Rand Paul has no objection to our actual drone policy. In his follow-up letter to Holder, Paul made no mention whatsoever of the administration's dramatic expansion in the use of drone strikes against non-Americans overseas. His singular focus was on the entirely implausible idea that the military might take out dissident voices in the United States with drone strikes; he even offered up a fantasy of Jane Fonda being blown up while sitting in a cafe. (Seriously, if the government were to assassinate U.S. citizens for their political views, don't you think they might choose a somewhat quiter method?)

A recent report by legal scholars at New York University and Stanford University found that our drone program in Pakistan is "damaging and counterproductive." The authors noted that "while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the U.S. government, there is significant evidence that U.S. drone strikes have injured and killed civilians." (Another study, by the New America Foundation, estimated that only 2 percent of those killed in American drone attacks fit the definition of "senior-level targets.")

A majority of Americans are OK with the use of drones to kill "suspected terrorists" overseas (making Paul's grandstanding something less than "brave"), but when the prospect of collateral damage is raised, only 27 percent continue to support the program, with 43 percent opposed. If Rand Paul has similar problems with blowing up innocent brown people abroad, he certainly didn't emphasize it during his filibuster.

Paul is wrong because, rather than take issue with Obama's actual drone program, his criticism is animated by the paranoid delusions of the far right -- the same apocalyptic visions that animate gun-hoarding survivalists and the militia movement. As Charles Johnson noted, "Sen. Paul is a frequent guest on the conspiracy-peddling Alex Jones Show, where he co-signs every deranged fantasy."

David Frum also observed that Paul "emerges from a milieu in which far-fetched scenarios don't seem far-fetched at all."

Paul specifically mentioned the possibility of a democratically elected Adolph Hitler-like figure coming to power in the United States. Looming federal tyranny -- against which the only protection is an armed citizenry -- is a staple item in the Rand Paul inventory of urgent concerns.

Paul does deserve credit for illustrating the value of a "talking filibuster" in a dramatic way. But he doesn't deserve any praise from progressives for attacking a straw-drone from the far reaches of the right. And it's a shame that the discourse has been ceded to him, because we should be having a rigorous debate about Obama's drone program -- about its legality, morality and whether it's creating more terrorists than it kills.

It's not the technology itself -- people have been killing people remotely using unmanned aerial vehicles since the Nazis started shooting rockets at London during World War II -- but the policy. There is virtually no transparency or accountability attached to the secretive program. Congress has been pushing for more oversight, to no avail. And even defenders of these strikes, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., nonetheless believe “the drone program should be taken out of the CIA and put into the Department of Defense, which is subject to greater congressional oversight,” according to the Wall Street Journal ($$).

So you can stand with Paul, but doing so is never going to lead to the national discussion we should be having about the widespread use of these flying killer robots.


Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter