Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rand Paul's Drone Rant
March 6, 2013, 7:23 p.m. ET

Give Rand Paul credit for theatrical timing. As a snow storm descended on Washington, the Kentucky Republican's old-fashioned filibuster Wednesday filled the attention void on Twitter and cable TV. If only his reasoning matched the showmanship.

Shortly before noon, Senator Paul began a talking filibuster against John Brennan's nomination to lead the CIA. The tactic is rarely used in the Senate and was last seen in 2010. But Senator Paul said an "alarm" had to be sounded about the threat to Americans from their own government. He promised to speak "until the President says, no, he will not kill you at a café." He meant by a military drone. He's apparently serious, though his argument isn't.

Senator Paul had written the White House to inquire about the possibility of a drone strike against a U.S. citizen on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder replied that the U.S. hasn't and "has no intention" to bomb any specific territory. Drones are limited to the remotest areas of conflict zones like Pakistan and Yemen. But as a hypothetical Constitutional matter, Mr. Holder acknowledged the President can authorize the use of lethal military force within U.S. territory.

This shocked Senator Paul, who invoked the Constitution and Miranda rights. Under current U.S. policy, Mr. Paul mused on the floor, Jane Fonda could have been legally killed by a Hellfire missile during her tour of Communist Hanoi in 1972. A group of noncombatants sitting in public view in Houston may soon be pulverized, he declared.

Calm down, Senator. Mr. Holder is right, even if he doesn't explain the law very well. The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an "enemy combatant" anywhere at anytime, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant. The President can designate such a combatant if he belongs to an entity—a government, say, or a terrorist network like al Qaeda—that has taken up arms against the United States as part of an internationally recognized armed conflict. That does not include Hanoi Jane.

Such a conflict exists between the U.S. and al Qaeda, so Mr. Holder is right that the U.S. could have targeted (say) U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki had he continued to live in Virginia. The U.S. killed him in Yemen before he could kill more Americans. But under the law Awlaki was no different than the Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II, were captured and executed.

The country needs more Senators who care about liberty, but if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he's talking about.

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