Amidst Rand Paul's filibuster of President Barack Obama's nominee for Director of the CIA John Brennan in Congress, some Republicans are inquiring about the possibility of armed drones flying in American skies. This might seem like an Orwellian inquiry directed towards the Ministry of Peace, but the notion is not that distant from reality. An American, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, has already been killed by an armed CIA drone in Yemen. Also, UAV's have been authorized to fly over U.S. airspace. Currently, there have been zero missions involving armed CIA drones in the U.S. Regardless, here are the points that need to be addressed:
Upon learning about the addition of Anwar Al-Aulaqi to CIA and JSOC kill lists without "charge, trial, or conviction," his father Nasser Al-Aulaqi sued President Barack Obama, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and then CIA Director Leon Panetta. In effect, Nasser Al-Aulaqi's filing of this suit expedited the process by which an American may be targeted. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ultimately dismissed the charges, but the ruling to dismiss included a lengthy justification. Interestingly, the U.S. government did not even have to claim 'state secrets' to do so. On 30 September 2011, Anwar Al-Aulaqi was killed in Yemen by Hellfire missile fired by an armed Reaper Drone. The uproar surrounding this drone strike has not been in defense of Anwar Al-Aulaqi, but rather concern that a U.S. president, with just a quick signature, can authorize the summary execution of an American once he/she leaves U.S. borders. This notion is entirely false. [View the full text court decision here]
Drones in U.S. Airspace
On a technical note, while UAV does stand for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the U.S. government refers to its aircraft as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, regularly uses nine unarmed Predator drones for reconnaissance purposes along America's borders. The ethical question enters the frame due to the lack of an active, hands on pilot, opting instead for a remote controller. Essentially, this is no different from conventional patrol aircraft, like helicopters – save for the fact that agents in conventional aircraft are generally armed.
Before launching his filibuster, Senator Rand Paul contacted both John Brennan, currently the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and nominee for CIA director and Attorney General Eric Holder to inquire about "the President ha[ving] the power to authorize lethal force, such as drone strikes, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without trial." Senator Paul published both of the responses he received. John Brennan offered his personal input, but ultimately referred Senator Paul's question regarding the President's power to the Department of Justice.
John Brennan's Response: "I can, however, state unequivocally that the agency I have been nominated to lead, the CIA, does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States – nor does it have any authority to do so. Thus, if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as CIA Director, I would have no "power" to authorize such operations."
Senator Paul's inquiry to John Brennan is either one from naivety or misunderstanding. Naivety, because Senator Paul should be fully aware that the CIA, by rule of law, is not allowed to conduct operations in the United States. Misunderstanding, because while the CIA is responsible for directing the drone program overseas, it is in fact the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that executes the drone strikes – and they are fully capable and legally justified to conduct operations within the United States. This was clearly a redundancy of inquiry or political jockeying on the part of Senator Paul.
Eric Holder started his response by quickly outlining the fact(s) that "the U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the U.S. and has no intention of doing so." Furthermore, he highlights the fact that the U.S. has in place extensive resources with which to apprehend criminal elements in the U.S. – namely the police and FBI. Thus, the explanation Attorney General Eric Holder gives is entirely hypothetical.
Eric Holder's Response: "The President could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland [United States of America] in the circumstances of a catastrophe like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941 [Pearl Harbor] and September 11, 2001. Were such an emergency to arise, I would examine the particular facts and circumstances before advising the President on the scope of his authority."
This response given by Eric Holder is completely rational and justified – and is in no way contradictory with John Brennan's response. Any legal policy that Eric Holder puts forth could be utilized by local police, FBI, National Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, and even JSOC to justify legal drone strikes in the U.S and this would not be contrary to John Brennan's declaration regarding the CIA's non-involvement in such matters. Considering the need for rapid response in a Pearl Harbor-like scenario, armed drones would most certainly be utilized. Similarly, in a airliner hijacking scenario like 9/11, a call by the President to shoot down the hijacked aircraft would amount to military actions contributing to the death of American citizens.
The clear political maneuvering by the likes of Rand Paul is ridiculous. He had stated that he would continue his filibuster until the president says he will not strike cafes and restaurants. Rand Paul has created a straw man out of the Obama administration's drone policy and is relying on innuendos to suggest that drone strikes are an imminent threat to U.S. citizens on American soil. The journey towards armed drones in American skies has stopped at this crossroads. The Obama administration has unequivocally declared that the use of armed drones in the U.S. will not happen. And even if the possibility of armed drones in American skies were to somehow become a reality, the legal path needing to be forged would be quite long and extensive.
See the full version of this article on Nolan Kraszkiewicz's blog - www.TheNolanK.com.