The Buzz

Drone Policy after the Filibuster

The current issue of Foreign Policy has a Mad Libs–style section where it asks analysts on military issues to fill in the blanks on various questions. In response to the prompt “Obama’s drone policy is…” Peter Singer replies:

Due for a speech outlining America's vision on where the technology and the policy should evolve to next. Who better than a commander in chief/law professor/Nobel Prize winner to give that speech?

This was a good idea to begin with, and it’s an even better one in the aftermath of Rand Paul’s nearly thirteen-hour filibuster against John Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA earlier this week. Paul’s filibuster dominated the media cycle and served to bring some needed attention to an issue that has often been ignored beyond a small circle. But, as others have pointed out, the circumstance he primarily focused on—the possibility of a U.S. citizen being killed by a drone strike on American soil—is a very narrow and extremely unlikely one. At the same time, according to an averaged set of estimates, over the past decade the United States has actually killed roughly 3,400 people with 411 drone strikes overseas, with about four hundred of them being civilians. (To his credit, Paul did mention the practice of “signature” strikes overseas several times as well, which is maybe the most troubling aspect of current drone policy.)

In the end, Paul got the categorical answer he wanted from Eric Holder. As Conor Friedersdorf writes, this is no small thing—any explicit admission by the executive branch of what it is not allowed to do, with no exceptions or weasel words, is valuable. But we are still left with more questions than answers about the overall direction of the targeted-killing program. We are still left with an apparently endless war against a wide range of groups spanning several countries, legally justified by a very brief resolution passed over a decade ago.

Meanwhile, just earlier this week the Washington Post reported that the administration is now “weighing whether the law can be stretched to cover what one former official called ‘associates of associates.’” These are militant groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya that “may embrace aspects of al-Qaeda’s agenda but have no meaningful ties to its crumbling leadership base.”

This is where a presidential speech could make a difference, as Singer says. The fact that Paul’s filibuster happened at all was a direct indictment of the administration’s own unwillingness to be forthcoming about many of the issues surrounding its counterterror policies. A direct response would allow the administration to move the conversation away from hypotheticals and explain what it is actually doing and where it sees the drone program and the broader “long war” going over the next several years.

Moreover, it would also play to Obama’s strengths as a speaker. He has often been at his best when critically examining specific issues in depth, as he did in his 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia and his 2009 Nobel Prize speech. After the Philadelphia speech, Jon Stewart noted in a rare moment of sincerity that the reason it was significant was that Obama “spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.” It is time for a president to speak to us about drones, targeted killings and counterterrorism as though we were adults as well.