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 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 (95 Responses)
  1. sand

    drone are a joke just wait north korea is gona nuke ireland dublin then you see what a real weapon is.

    March 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      @sand,give it a rest idiot!!

      March 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • Patriot

      What you just said is a load of bullcrap. North Korea is fifty years behind the United States. NK would be lucky if their nukes would atleast hit Soeul or Tokyo.

      March 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
      • Pete

        @Patriot,forget your time responding to this idiot because he does this on every site he can get on,just a bunch of scribble,blabber from some nut on zanax or something...

        March 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
      • Joe

        North Korea would be lucky if it gets off the ground!

        March 13, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
      • tokencode

        Only 50 years? Our very first nuke was way more powerful than anything NK has now, and that was around 70 years ago. I think they're closer to 75+years behind in just technology. The only thing the pudgy leader is capable of destroying is a chocolate cake.

        March 13, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
      • METOU

        I guess you were just over there in Korea and inspected everything huh? stupid

        March 14, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • ji,

      The "wrong hands?" As opposed to ours, which are the "right" hands? Anyway, the point the article is making is fine, though its written like an undergraduate paper for politics 101.

      March 14, 2013 at 7:37 am | Reply
    • SentTheWave

      Obvious troll is obvious

      March 15, 2013 at 7:23 am | Reply
    • Khan

      Drone strikes are the cause of terrorism in Pakistan. Looks like this US Admin does not give a damn about the UN or international law. President is acting like Tony Soprano.

      March 15, 2013 at 11:09 am | Reply

        I believe Drones are the way to go to deal with Terroism and threats of all kinds. Which is better to do, send in a drone to do the dirty deed or a soldier. Better the Drone gets blown up you can always make another but send in a soldier, he or she can`t be replaced unless they have already been cloned. Then again which is better to kill a drone or a human? And what is all this crap about the US government not being able to kill Americans on American soil that is a bunch of Horse Hooey, they kill Americans on American soil everyday with their Politics, Duh!!!

        March 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    In the last few years UAVs have become widely used. The more drones become a household name, the sooner they lose their sense of lethality.
    Legal procedures to limit their use have to be sanctioned by the UN. Will the US be prepared to scale it down? Even if there are international laws that limit the use, they will be flouted. We have to be resourceful to protect ourselves.

    March 13, 2013 at 6:14 am | Reply
    • Howard

      Before people rush to outlaw drones, please consider how they're being used ... to kill terrorists in a war where the enemy is stateless. There is no enemy country or capital to attack in the War on Terror.

      If not drones, then how do we fight such a war, especially in countries where we would not be welcome?

      March 14, 2013 at 3:28 am | Reply
      • Random

        @Howard, what if the drone strike kills a citizen of said country where America is not welcome. Is that not an act of war against the country the attack took place?

        Example. Venezuela (if they had drones) attacks a terrorist against Venezuela using drones within the USA and happens to kill the terrorist (who may be an American) or an innocent American civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time. Would the USA not consider his an Act of War?

        March 14, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • William R. Hill

      Once a technology becomes universally available and can be replicated easily and cheaply, anybody who thinks they can regulate when, where and how it will be used is dreaming. If you have ever worried about "big brother" watching you, how about "big brother in the sky." It won't be long before somebody is watching everything you do. Killing terrorists is not much of a threat compared to killing our privacy.

      March 14, 2013 at 7:30 am | Reply
    • barowner

      What does everyone think will happen when the terrorists acquire drones? It will happen sooner than anything thinks. Imagine worrying about what's flying over your kids school! We had better be more concerned about limiting drones rather than granting licenses to every government agency there is. We had also better come up with some sort of drone defense that can be used domestically.

      March 15, 2013 at 8:49 am | Reply
      • stan

        The only answer to a bad guy with a drone is a good guy with a drone. Ask the NRA.

        March 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  3. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Dear sen. Rant Paul,

    It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no.

    Signed---------, well sir, as Attorney General, do you think I have time to waste righting silly little letters or answering your stupid questions??? Sir, I have a lot more important things to do than to answer your silly divisive disruptive pointless childish right wing questions. Therefore I have had my secretary prepared your silly little letter, BOY. Actually it was an intern who prepared your letter. Bigoted incompetent racist right wing idiot.

    March 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • Sam Kinison

      You just go to love the hypocrisy of the left.

      Pour some water on someone's head. Oh lord, the US is torturing people, run headlines everywhere.

      Kill US citizens without a trial or a warrant. Not a word.

      March 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • are122

      It probably took Holder so long to answer because he had to ask his interns.

      March 13, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  4. Harry P. Ness

    Hi, i'm Harry P. Ness Wanna try a sausage at my huge sausage fest?

    March 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  5. Ben Dover

    Hey!, wanna smell Mike Hunt?

    March 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  6. Mike Hunt

    Dude Shut up, its not funny.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  7. Yurgey

    Americans are dumb idiots like Mike Hunt.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      ...and your just "DUMB"!

      March 13, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Reply
      • Tony

        @You're dumb. As in, you are dumb.

        March 14, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  8. Cee Enen

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    March 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  9. Piers Morgan.

    Hello all,

    It has come to my attention that Americans are worried about harmless drones more than guns which are obviously a big threat in America, shooting everywhere and children dying, grow up and get a clue.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      I fully agree Mr. Morgan. But then again, gun advocates like Ranting Paul shouldn't complain about drones because a drone is just a supersized Gatling gun with a propeller and a GPS system. And furthermore, our second amendment never did specify or limit the size of guns we Americans can carry. Perhaps if we were to mount a few Bushmasters on the drones and sell them at gun shows for the right wing lunatics to go on more school shooting rampage, Mr. LaPierre and Mr. Paul would approve.

      March 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply
    • DAC

      Mr. Morgan, I fully agree that there are more important things than this ridiculous drone debate, but I find the gun issue nearly as ridiculous. Blaming the tool for a person's actions. We're blaming the drones for attacks that, in the past would have been done by a cruise missle, or a fighter jet, and not seeing it for what it is a "tool". To a large degree the gun issue is the same. A tool being blamed for a persons actions. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a tool that should be attained without a thorough background check, but is just a tool. Apparently, we all need to grow up.

      March 14, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
      • Whatever

        Nukes are also just a tool or object – everybody whom wants just needs to go through a back round check

        March 14, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  10. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    So where did Ranting Rant Paul actually got his delusional insane ideas that the President would ever have entertained the notion of using drones in America on Americans or on anybody on American soil??? O' my bad, I forget you have to keep your eyes on the Black President. Perhaps Rant Paul is unaware that we have the FBI and dozens of other law enforcement agencies in play across the country to deal with domestic terrorists. O' my bad, the GOPT has to manipulate and distort the facts to exploit and brain wash the American people with fearmongering tactics and lies to try and undermine the Black President's legacy. Keep trying Ranting Paul cause your days are numbered.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • Sam Kinison

      Oh yes, anyone who dares challenge this failed administration is obviously a racist.

      March 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Reply
      • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

        Failed administration??? Really??? I'm sure you don't have the ba lls to elaborate on that assertion. Can you please elaborate?

        March 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
      • Pete

        @Sam Kinison,yah better look at the one you voted for before this one in Bushs if you want a shining example of a clueless,ignorent idiot that cheated his ass off to get to the WH and you ignorents held the door open twice for him as well!!This is why I advocate birth control for trailer trash bigotted republicans as you and you call yourself an American,what a crock!!I'll have to buy a drone to keep dogs like you Sam off my porch!!!

        March 13, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
      • Sue Ann

        Thank you! Did you see Mr. Obama on the same stage with Dr. Ben Carson at the National Prayer Service? I was so embarrassed for Barry. It is on Youtube if you missed it. Barack could only wish to be found worthy to untie the sandals of this surgeon. By the look on Hussein's face, he was more than aware how outmatched he was. It was like a mule trying to compete with a thoroughbred. Oh, just in case, the mule is a Democratic President.

        March 19, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • that guy

      you do realize that if Jeb Bush is elected (god forbid) he will have the ability to use the drones. and since the legal justification of what can and cant be done with drones is classified the question must be asked! not because you think your guy would never kill an americian without due process but because the next POTUS will be able to.

      March 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
      • wrma

        A good way to put it. Even if we just let [some] people think that Obama is the second coming of Christ we still have to think about what is going on in terms of policy moving forward and beyond Obama. Paul drew attention to the issue where there was none and regardless of the rest of R. Paul's issues, or issues as you see them, the move was a good one for us as a people and as a country. So, who cares if you think he's a cook, or if he's a cook, in the end that isn't what matters.

        March 14, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • J G

      Given that this President is more than happy to utilize drones to kill U.S. citizens when they're overseas and not engaged in combat, I think it's a perfectly legitimate question. Not to mention, that Holder didn't want to answer the question, and had to be pushed to answer what should have been a simple question, should frighten everybody.

      March 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  11. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Let's face it, Iran and North Korea's leaders are not as dumb as we think they are. Like every other country in the world, Iran and NK pay very close attention to what's happening in Washington each and every day. And so far, both leaders feel empowered by the divisiveness that they see taking place in Washington. They are fully aware that conservatives in our government want our President and country to fail and they're aware that for the past four years, the right wingers in our government and across the country have done everything within their means to undermine President Obama's administration. And what is unfortunate for our country is that the Mr. Aminadejad and Mr. Jung-un are fully aware that if their provocation escalates and warrant military intervention on our part, our President would be limited because conservatives in our government won't support him. Yes, the right wingers are the enemy within.

    March 13, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • Sam Kinison

      Wow what a bunch of empty rhetoric. Do you have any original thoughts in your head, or can you only spout Democrat talking points?

      March 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Reply
      • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

        Democratic talking points??? Do you remember the GOPT's rambling during the Libyan conflict? The GOPT and even the mainstream media accused President Obama of "dragging his feet and doing nothing to help the people of Libya who were being murdered by the oppressive and brutal Ghadaffi regime." But when the President intervened with a coalition of allies, the same people accused the President of "rushing to war," then without any conscience or shame, they all asked sarcastically what's the mission and end game," that while their Iraqi and Afghan wars lasted a decade. No, that's not democratic talking points, its plain facts.

        March 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
      • Pete

        @Sam Kinison,don't disrespect a deceased funny comedian using his name bud..And while you're at it why don't you get original because you tend to post like a dog chasing a taxi and the problem is with you after catching it what do you do Sam,then chase your own tail because you can't think of anything else to go after.Please Sam chime in because I'm going to the men's room now to give birth to a republican,I hope you don't mine me naming him Sam do yah and he'll be as smart and witty as you,I hope!!

        March 13, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Since Rant Paul's 13 hour escapade on the floor of congress, rogue states and terrorist regimes abroad have adopted a new strategy to combat our war on terrorism and deter America from using drones. Their new strategy is to abduct Americans and use them as human shields. Thank you for empowering the enemy rantling Rant Paul. And as long as the likes of Dennis Rodman are vacationing in NK, if NK was to unleash a pre-emptive strike against the U.S., President Obama better not entertain the notion of using drones to take out Jung-un because if Rodman gets hit in the process, our poor Black President is going to be impeached. I guess the President would have no other alternative than to abandon drone usage and put our troops in harms way. Thank you sir Mr. Ranting Rant Paul for empowering the enemy. Your due process is working out just fine.

    March 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  13. irwin

    The U.S. is the biggest rogue nation on earth. I'm just waiting for the blowback and it to get called out for their illegal wars and killings!. There's a double standard with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Another country would have been sanctioned and ostracized for a war with a country that didn't threaten it (Iraq).

    March 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • popseal

      Irwin you should move to the paradise that is Saudi Arabia. If you don't like sand and swords, go to Havana, go to Hanoi, or my personal favorite Karachi. Now those places are destinations primo'............just leave America and we'll both be a lot happier.

      March 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      @Irwin,in a way you're right letting ignorent power hungry brainiacts like Bush into the presidency..And remember his lies starting two unfunded wars killing thousands and being such a lying hypocrite hugging troops that are crippled ,disabled saying good job guys for giving your all for me and Cheneys Halliburton,boy did we make money off your asses didn't we!!And Reagan lying about the nuclear ICBM missile race we had with Russia what a crock considering that Russia told Reagan they quit building missiles months before because their economy was broke ,do you remember that,Reagan didn't either did he running this country while his family knew he had alzheimers,nice ha...But that's what power does to republicans in the presidency just makes them crazier and they don't mine putting our country out on a limb as long as no one from their family or friends are involved,just check my facts it'll show I'm right,you'll see!!

      March 13, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  14. popseal

    I get it about the drones. I really like the drones. They are a perfect high tech' answer to the primitive cave dwellers that would kill anybody not them. It's this Fareed guy heading the article that creeps me out. Where did he emerge from? Before I listen to anyone tell me something, I need to know who and what he is. The Three Monkey Media is so in the tank for 'its guy', you just have to know a few things first, before giving a listen.............

    March 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  15. Studypeople

    These questions should have been asked when we first started using Drones as a Weapon Platform a decade ago. But since no one questioned the use back then..... Why now?

    March 13, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  16. Richard

    This whole issue is about murdering people whatever the weapon. Knife, drone, gun, poison, does it really matter. Maybe some people just need to be murdered for the good of the human race. Who makes that call?

    March 13, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  17. A_U.S.Citizen

    I have three words: Domestic Drone Countermeasures, A new company in Oregon that has ways to deal with drones it would seem!

    March 14, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  18. joe

    No Evidence. No Trial. Not even a pretended Trial.

    March 14, 2013 at 8:14 am | Reply
  19. cocopuf4u

    They need to send dozens of drones to N. Korea after Fatso.

    March 14, 2013 at 9:57 am | Reply
  20. fiftyfive55

    Technology always moves forward,not backwards.Drones are inevitable and a heck of alot more accurate than just lobbing missiles at a target and hoping for a bullseye.Don't get me wrong,I am not a war monger but the more accurate and controllable a missile is,the less innocent bystanders have to worry about.

    March 14, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
  21. DL

    1. Drone attacks are war crimes – it's execution of people who are 'suspects' – Obama joins the ranks of Cheney & Bush
    2. Drones are an ez freebie for the US until China starts flying them over the US – then it'll be a 'big' deal

    March 14, 2013 at 11:53 am | Reply
  22. ART

    Rand Paul is an idiot

    March 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  23. JAF

    the real problem is iran

    March 14, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • Pope

      You are a real moron irans best missle can only go 75km

      March 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  24. DAC

    This discussion seems ridiculous to me. What difference does it make whether it's a manned or unmanned vehicle? The US could use fighters, helos, cruise missles, or any other "tool of destruction" to attack americans on US soil. They don't. Why is it any different with a drone? It's not. If there's a legitimate fear that such a thing could happen, then it is irrelevant what "tool" is used, and whether it is manned or not.

    March 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • MeanOldMan

      The problem is that like most technology it will become available and cheap enough that a terrorist will not have to hijack a plane but can just pilot a drone. A single dirty bomb on a drone would be a disaster. The other part is that we are setting a precedent that the rest of the world will cite when they have the capability to do the same things we are doing. Say hamas flying drones into israel for instance. i can hear the arguments now. How can we say someone else can't do something when we ourselves do it? That is one reason McCain, rightly so, condemned torture. If we do it it gives implied license for others to do likewise.

      March 14, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Reply
      • jamesmarcusbach

        The precedent doesn't matter. The U.S. wasn't flying airliners into buildings before someone else tried it.

        Yeah, drones can be used by terrorists. That's true no matter what we do or don't do. A drone is just another tool. Anyone being attacked by them better come up with a defense. If our enemies send drones, we'll shoot them down. Of course, a drone large enough to carry a significant bomb is not going to be available to terrorists. Oh, and drones like that have been around for hundreds of years: we call them artillery.

        I think it's exciting to worry about drones because to some people it sounds like killer robots from the sky. Wooo, scary.

        March 15, 2013 at 7:26 am |
  25. Aegius

    The discussion is crazy and is bringing conspiracy theorists out of the wood work. A drone is no different than any other manned aircraft. They are both piloted with the only difference being where the pilot sits. A $300 drone you say? This is called a toy. They've been putting cameras on RC Airplanes/helicopters/cars/rockets for decades. Just walk into any toy store and you will see them.

    March 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  26. Yes1fan

    Drones have the same vulnerability that Naval ships have.
    A "directed EMF pulse" will take them out like swatting flies.

    March 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  27. DAVID30DEI


    March 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  28. Troy

    Drones are useful here and abroad. This has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats. If you can use a drone in place of endangering a pilots life, be that in a battle in some remote corner of the world, or in the US itself. And if you do not think we have people just as dangerous here as there are over there, you are a bit naive.

    March 14, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
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