Rand Paul responds to outcry: I never said drones should never be used to kill U.S. citizens on American soil

Here’s the statement he released last night, following the Cavuto segment that Ed wrote about yesterday. I think he’s right: Even during the filibuster, he allowed for the use of military force (i.e. drones) to stop an attack on U.S. soil that’s in progress. His objection was to the White House using drones to liquidate someone who was merely plotting, who hadn’t lifted a finger (yet) to do any actual damage.

“My comments last night left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed.

“Let me be clear: it has not. Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster.

“Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets.

“Fighting terrorism and capturing terrorists must be done while preserving our constitutional protections. This was demonstrated last week in Boston. As we all seek to prevent future tragedies, we must continue to bear this in mind.”

That’s super, but that’s not what most people took from the filibuster. The big-picture point was that, on American soil at least, U.S. citizens deserve due process from the feds that foreign terrorist suspects don’t get, which is hard to reconcile with Paul telling Cavuto that having a drone kill a suspect who’s just robbed a liquor store is no different than the cops doing it. Foreign Policy, writing about the uproar among Ron Paul fans over Rand’s comments, notes this line from the beginning of his filibuster:

I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.

Per that logic, you assuredly don’t want a drone firing at the liquor-store suspect. The guy hasn’t been charged or convicted yet; he’s not engaged in any sort of terrorist attack; there’s no obvious need for military weaponry like drones to stop him when the police are available. The whole point of the filibuster, I thought, was to raise the bar for using lethal drones in the United States as high as possible. Now he seems to be lowering it to include common crime. Huh?

Rick Ungar makes a good point too about the back and forth between Holder and Paul before the filibuster. Remember this passage from the letter Holder sent to Paul on March 5 addressing his concerns about domestic drone use against terror plotters?

The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

That sounds like Paul’s position: Drones are okay in emergency situations, when there’s an attack in progress. The day after Holder sent him that letter, though, Paul’s office issued an indignant response:

Attorney General Holder stated in a letter to Sen. Paul dated March 4, 2013: “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”

“The U.S. Attorney General’s refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil is more than frightening – it is an affront the Constitutional due process rights of all Americans,” Sen. Paul said.

It was a constitutional abomination that Holder wouldn’t categorically rule out drone strikes (except in an emergency defense of the homeland) sufficient to warrant a 13-hour filibuster, and a month later Paul’s telling Cavuto that it’s okay to drop a bomb on a liquor-store robber? What? Even his new standard announced in last night’s statement about drones being okay in “extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat” seems a bit lower than Holder’s standard of 9/11-type mass attacks. No wonder the Ron Paul fans are angry.

What you’re seeing here is really just an especially stark example of Rand Paul trying to somehow maintain his Paulworld libertarian cred while straining to please more mainstream conservatives ahead of 2016. The filibuster was clever because it pleased both groups, taking a stand on civil liberties to make Obama squirm. But the Tsarnaev case ended up highlighting just how narrow his objection was: He’s not against using lethal drones against U.S. citizens on American soil unless they’re merely suspected of plotting something. If they’re suspected of having actually done something violent — whether it’s been proved yet or not — then go nuts, I guess. And truth be told, Paul’s filibuster “victory,” culminating in a letter from Holder affirming that drones won’t be used unless a suspect is “engaged in combat,” was always a thin victory. The whole point of the debate is how you define “combat”; the White House’s lawyers define it broadly, so Holder’s letter really ended up conceding nothing. Oh well.

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