One week ago today, confirmation hearings for John Brennan as Director of the CIA, Senator Rand Paul launched into a filibuster against Brennan, bringing up the United States’ drone program as a reason to oppose the appointment. Paul’s argument focused on the concern that the Obama administration might think itself able to launch a drone strike on an American noncombatant inside the United States. Although the executive branch eventually said that would not be legal, Paul’s filibuster counts as the first major discussion of the United States’ targeted killing program.
It’s a shame that Senator Paul missed some of the major issues involved in it.
1. The targeted killing program affects the rest of the world more than the United States.
Sentator Paul’s filibuster mainly stuck to one topic: the killing of American noncombatants on American soil. Yet, the senator did not worry about the legality or repercussions of the continued targeted killings in Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, both of whom Paul mentioned, were killed in Yemen in drone strikes that the senator doesn’t seem to mind. These drone strikes, despite statements to the contrary, do cause collateral damage. There’s no doubt they have killed al-Qaida members and militants, but civilians also get killed, at least 200 by official estimates. These strikes can embitter the world against the United States and hurt its standing in regards to human rights.
2. It’s more than just drones.
Drones have become the face of the targeted killing program. It makes sense; unmanned machines that rain death tap into societal fears of technology. But there is far more to it. Airstrikes from AC-130s contribute to the deaths. Special forces under the banner of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operate in near secret in Afghanistan and around the world. JSOC was the group that organized the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. It’s not just machines thousands of feet in the air that are killing people, it’s actual soldiers on the ground in many cases.
3. The United States is moving away from capturing suspects to killing them.
The targeted killing program derives its power from a 2001 resolution in Congress. The Authorization for Use of Military Force is the legal justification the ongoing “War on Terror” and everything that falls under it. And in recent years, the AUMF is serving as background for an increased focus on killing suspected terrorists, even American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki. It wasn’t always this way. John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban during the 2001 Afghanistan invasion, was captured and tried. And yes, the United States captured and is now trying Bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. But more often than not, JSOC and other counterterror groups are choosing to kill militants or suspected militants from the start, rather than try to capture them. This is unsettling because it’s putting terrorist actions on some higher level of criminality. Terrorism is just the acts of murder and similar crimes for political purpose and chaos. Murder or conspiracy to murder are crimes that are met with a trial in court, not a drone strike. Treating terrorism as some sort of supercrime only helps terrorists.
4. The targeted killing program is becoming an ingrained part of the defense field.
Despite the fact that the government still tries to deny the official existence of the drone program, and with it, the targeted killing program, it’s becoming a major part of how the defense field works. The Pentagon and CIA both have their own drone fleets, and with the killing of Bin Laden, JSOC is held in high regard. Through them, the United States is continuing a shadow war across the world, one that is expanding and shows no sign of stopping. This all comes as the Pentagon’s influence in Washington, D.C. grows. And since heavy defense spending is one thing that gets almost unanimous bipartisan support in Congress, the Department of Defense is getting more and more autonomy to wage a perpetual war. Senator Paul said a perpetual war shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but it already is, be it through legal means or financing. He can rage against the drone program and its possible use against Americans, but that would be going after a symptom of a great problem.