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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?
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.