March 12th, 2013
11:34 AM ET

The trouble with U.S. drone policy

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By Global Public Square staff

Senator Rand Paul decided to drone on last week about drones. He employed a rare talking filibuster to stall a confirmation vote for John Brennan as the CIA's director. All told, he went on for 12 hours and 52 minutes, including when he took questions from his Republican colleagues.

Washington also saw some tough questioning for Eric Holder. The attorney general was forced to admit it would unconstitutional to kill an American citizen with drone strikes on U.S. soil unless there was a Pearl Harbor-type imminent threat.

Usually, filibusters can be viewed as a bizarre, quasi-constitutional mechanism that is basically anti-democratic. But it's important to have a serious debate about drones, not just on the legality of whether they can be used to kill an American citizen, but a broader debate about them.

If it's not constitutional to kill American citizens in America unless they're actively engaged in terrorism right then, is it constitutional to kill them when they're abroad, when they're not actively engaged in hostilities? And shouldn't there be some process of decision making that involves Congress or courts? Should the executive branch be able to determine entirely on its own who is an enemy – American or non-American – and then summarily execute that person?

More from CNN: bad laws would hurt good drones

Right now, none of these questions is getting serious attention while the CIA's drone activities have expanded dramatically. By some accounts, more than a third of the U.S. Air Force fleet is now unmanned. We are training more drone pilots than regular pilots in the Defense Department and there are reports that we are building a drone base in North Africa. American drones have reportedly killed an upward estimate of 4,700 people in the last decade. These numbers look like they'll keep rising.

Now, there's no doubt that drone strikes have helped us get rid of a number of influential terrorists without the cost of ground assaults. But this is still an incredibly gray area of counterterrorism.

For one, we are also killing a number of innocent civilians. Second, it is inevitable that other governments will one day justify doing the same thing.

The basic technology behind drones has become mainstream. Log onto Amazon.com and you will find a version for under $300 in choices of blue, green and yellow trim. It's not hard to imagine that the next step, weaponized drones, could be designed and deployed by groups other than the CIA. In fact, it's already happening.

A recent news report suggested that China considered using a drone to kill a drug lord in Myanmar. Today, it's Myanmar. Tomorrow, it could very well be some other place in Asia or beyond.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies identified about 50 countries that are actively using unmanned aerial vehicles. If we do it, why can't they? And then you have the question of what happens if and when weaponized drones fall into the wrong hands. What if the Taliban gets one? What if al Qaeda does? Where does it stop? And just imagine a simple point – what if China starts using drones regularly against what it regards as terrorists and defends itself by saying, well, that's what America does.

At some stage the decisions we've made in the last few years will come back to haunt us. Instead, let's think through this new situation carefully, and put in place legal procedures and limits so that we do not usher in a global free for all with drones.

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Topics: Conflict • Taliban • Technology • Terrorism • United States • What in the World?

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soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. Michael

    The problem is that the higher ups in Pakistan had chosen to secretly side with al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Remember the guy who attacked the US on 9/11, and who had plans to kill Obama? Iraq and Saddam may have had talked about helping al Qaeda, Pakistan on the other hand had done it. Are still doing it. Bin Laden was caught because of a doctor named Shakil Afridi that helped the US, and now Pakistan government is openly torturing Shakil Afridi's family. It is all on Wikipedia and are refusing the give up Shakil Afridi.

    No innocent man deserves to die, but Pakistan has been engaged in a war with the US, and it took 10 years for the US to respond.

    March 15, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
  2. Justin

    There shouldn't be any drones in America. America is such a controlling country!

    March 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  3. Andrew

    Does anyone notice the fact that the drone strikes are killing INNOCENT people?

    March 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  4. Zoglet

    What drone debate?

    CNN has blocked us from posting comments on todays article about the UN reporting on the scale of the US drone program.
    How is that helping the debate CNN?

    March 16, 2013 at 12:37 am | Reply
  5. Maja Verde

    " the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that since 2004, Pakistan has had 365 drone strikes that have killed between 2,536 and 3,577 people - including 411 to 884 civilians"

    The alternative press has been writing about this for years. Only since Rand Paul made a stand has CNN come out of the drone closet. What gives?

    CNN reacts to the news- it begrudgingly reports it and rarely investigates it.

    March 16, 2013 at 9:17 am | Reply
  6. GG in San Diego

    Sounds like the same debate that went on in the 1770's when the American revolutionaries were accused by the British of fighting unfairly by hiding behind trees and shooting at them rather than using the long-established conventional method of facing ones opponent, out in the open, in strict formation. The ways wars are fought will change. That is inevitable. Drones are here to stay. Especially if they save the lives of our soldier and Marine sons and daughters.

    March 20, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  7. Niche Bot

    Check out the Niche Bot at http://www.niche-bot.com Niche Bot http://www.niche-bot.com/

    May 18, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
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