An important clarification from Senator Rand Paul, who made headlines for a rare talking filibuster challenging Barack Obama to explain the difference between using drones against American citizens overseas and using them in the United States. Neil Cavuto asked Paul about the distinction yesterday in light of the manhunt for American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday, in which a drone or two with real-time infrared downlook capabilities above Watertown might have saved a little time. Paul told Cavuto that this wasn’t the use to which he objected:
“If there’s a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement,” Paul said on Fox Business Network’s Cavuto last night. “I’m just not for surveillance when there’s no probable cause that a crime’s being committed.”
“Here’s the distinction, Neil, I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, active crime going on,” he added.
Actually, I thought that distinction was pretty clear all along. The police have used helicopters for decades to track suspects on the run from law enforcement, and haven’t been shy about using the latest surveillance technology in the air or on the ground. Case law has long allowed that kind of aerial surveillance, especially for open areas outside of houses, even in back yards. The only difference is in the aerial platform and whether a pilot is along for the ride.
The question Paul wanted answered was not about surveillance but about offensive operations – ie, a targeted strike on an American citizen, such as the one that killed al-Qaeda leader and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. If the White House felt free to drop a bomb on Awlaki in Yemen for being a terrorist, would they have given the green light to do so on Tsarnaev if he had just been in the planning stages of another attack? Before one shrugs that off as fantasy, remember that Tsarnaev was considered extremely dangerous and suspected of wearing a suicide vest. Also consider that it took days for the White House to finally answer the question in the negative. That was the right answer, but the delay certainly doesn’t produce much confidence in the White House’s understanding of Paul’s distinction.