His Royal Majesty’s Drones

Posted on March 7, 2013

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I wanted to embed one of the all time scenes involving a predator drone from the world of entertainment.  This, from the grand series end finale of my favorite TV drama, 24 – was my initial choice –  because it affords you the script writer’s anticipation of the policy argument now at hand – that being the situational use of a drone against an American on American soil.  In this plotline,  President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), who is now going to have to face the music for violations of her oath of office, is actually using the drone to call off  an execution of our protagonist, ‘CTU’ Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).  Incidentally, I had an extremely difficult time finding that clip on YouTube, which is most likely why it was there to be found at all.  The movie studios are becoming extraordinarily efficient in removing content (even small segments) that are otherwise being sold as DVD sets or syndicated.

But do you remember back on the big brouhaha from the Democrats and liberals when Sarah Palin allegedly put what they claimed were ‘gun targets’ on Democrats up for re-election in some campaign literature?  Oh, the humanity!  Oh, the absence of rational perspective.  Oh, the partisan nonsense.   Sarah Palin hasn’t ordered any executions via the medium of drone strikes, but this  President whom rank and file Democrats have returned to office in spite of his repudiation of civil rights, has and maintains a prerogative to do so, even against Americans.

Drone killings, as you know, have been going on for years in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and other map points in the War on Terror, and  the strikes have taken the lives of hundreds  of persons that cannot be classified as ‘enemy combatants’.  It is just as of late that Attorney General Holder has publicly admitted that the Administration believes it is within President Obama’s purview to target Americans on American soil, that the question is attaining traction with Conservatives.

That’s not entirely true – Conservatives with a Constitutionalist perspective have been vociferously  raising questions and objections, but it has just now gained a wider audience among us.  The resident Obama partisan trolls lurking here will cynically attribute this to conservatives  seeking every opportunity to oppose the President because we dislike Blacks or some other nonsense.  I’ll not dignify that, other than to merely suggest that you consider the source and the motivation behind such comments.  The troll population isn’t interested in a factual exchange so much as they are into distorting the lens image by jumping around like circus clowns  in the background.

Mr Holder, in a letter responding to questions from Senators – chiefly Senator Paul of Kentucky, stressed that the prospect of a president considering the assassination of an American citizen on US soil was “entirely hypothetical” and “unlikely to occur”.

“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,” he wrote. Appearing before a Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder added, “the government has no intention to carry out any drone strikes in the United States”.

There are two issues here.  The ‘intention of the government’, seems to me to be the least pressing of them.  That the Obama Administration holds the position that it does reserve the prerogative to do so in a certain instance or scenario, is the prime issue at hand, since the ‘intention’ of the government can change from one moment to the next.

Some would say that where we find ourselves today is something that has accrued  for centuries in America.   First there was the Alien and Sedition Act, then Lincoln’s arrests of alleged Confederate sympathizers, followed by Woodrow Wilson with yet another edition of the Sedition Act and then Cointelpro during the Johnson – Nixon years, targeting dissidents.  All of these seem as baby steps in the evolution of a Police State, compared to the prospect of extra Judicial killings of Americans in America.

Journalist Tom Junod dubbed Obama’s tenure the “Lethal Presidency.”  While there is some legal and ethical murkiness in the case of drone attacks on militants and enemy combatants on foreign soil, the moral ambiguity recedes in the face of the collateral loss of civilian life that has been documented by human rights organizations.  Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor and nominee for CIA Chief, John Brennan, described civilian casualties from drone strikes as “exceedingly rare.”  How he defines ‘exceedingly rare’ is anyone’s guess because we don’t know what the benchmark within the Administration is for ‘exceedingly rare’.

A joint study of New York University and Stanford, entitled ‘Living Under Drones’, takes exception to Mr. Brennan’s characterization. “Real people are suffering real harm” but are largely ignored in government or news media discussions of drone attacks, said James Cavallaro of Stanford, one of the study’s authors.  The study authors did not estimate overall civilian casualties because of limited data, Cavallaro said.  But it cites estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has reported extensively on drone strikes, of 474 to 884 civilian deaths since 2004, including 176 children.

David Zucchino of Los Angeles Times.com reports that the authors go on to recommend that the U.S. Justice Department publicly state the legal basis for targeted killings by drones and the criteria for ‘signature strikes’,  those authorized against armed men who fit the profile of militants.  The report says the strikes violate international law because, in part, the government has not proved the targets are direct threats to the United States.

I happened to catch an interview on ‘It’s All Politics’ on NPR last week with U.C. Berkeley Law Professor Daniel Barber on the topic of the drone warfare.  He made, in my opinion, some insightful and reasonable observations, among them:

“Presidents, regardless of political party, or liberal versus conservative, they just don’t seem to have a lot of qualms about doing what they think is necessary for national security. So it doesn’t surprise me [that Obama has allowed Americans to be targeted in drone strikes overseas]. There have been very few exceptions.”

He also expressed a deep ambivalence about the manner in which both the Bush and now the Obama Administration are holding questions about due process at arms’ length.  On one hand, he said, American citizens fighting with an enemy who threatens the U.S. can’t be immune from the use of American force against them.  But it makes him uneasy that there has been so little involvement of Congress.  “I’m a little bit influenced by the fact that I personally have a lot of confidence in Obama,” said Farber.  “But you can’t make different rules depending on whether you like the president.”

I don’t, in any degree, share his confidence in Obama, but he is correct with regard to the principal at the root of this controversy. Another participant in this interview, Michael Macleod-Ball, legislative chief of staff in the organization’s Washington office, said:

“Even if there is some framework that you could argue would justify targeted killings, there certainly ought to be greater transparency. And there ought to be a role for the judiciary. In the Hamdi case, Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor said in a war context, whatever the power the U.S. Constitution envisions for the executive branch, it requires a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.”  And so if you are talking about a single branch acting unilaterally to take someone’s life, particularly an American life, it seems as though there is good legal precedent to suggest that, at the very least, Congress should be weighing in to authorize that more specifically.”

For my part, regarding the overall policy considerations, I share the reasonable and legitimate concerns of civil libertarians.  You cannot look at the drone strikes and the lack of defined policy and openness on the part of the Administration in isolation.  It is part of a complete package of extremely dangerous and irresponsible abrogations to executive authority on the part of our Legislative branch. They have rubber stamped the NDAA, the expansion of the Patriot Act and have, with a few miniscule vocal objections, given ‘Big Sis’ Janet Napolitano wide latitude – no let’s say it straight, carte blanche in violating Americans’ 4th Amendment rights on a daily basis.

Rand Paul, in his comments during his filibuster of the Brennan nomination, has drawn a line in the sand:

“No American should ever be killed in their house without  warrant and some kind of aggressive behavior by them,” Paul said on the Senate floor. “To be bombed in your sleep? There’s nothing American about that . . . [Obama] says trust him  because he hasn’t done it yet. He says he doesn’t intend to do so, but he might. Mr. President, that’s not good enough . . . so I’ve come here to speak for as long as I can to draw attention to something that I find to really be very disturbing.”

“I will not sit quietly and let him shred the Constitution,” Paul added. ”No person will be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process,” he said, quoting the Fifth Amendment.

I’ve carried a lot of water for the folks in local and state law enforcement over the years, both editorially and professionally.  As such, I’ve earned the right to call them out when they are crossing the line.  Let me illustrate the practical side of my general objection to the government’s illegitimate assumption of the power to execute domestic drone strikes.  On countless occasions we’ve all heard about the out of control car chases that in too many cases end up claiming the lives of innocent civilians.  While in the minds of many people watching them unfold on live television, they are riveting and entertaining, the police will always justify the unintended casualties and I will always contend that there are no justifications for endangering the public that the police are sworn to protect, defend and serve.

Similarly, the time will come, if the growth of the non constitutional Police State is allowed to metastasize, when Americans who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time will be collateral casualties to the actions of an Imperial President.  There is a point at which, the technology of domestic surveillance and violent force –  in a dizzying cycle of evolution, becomes not the master perhaps, but the servant at least, of tyranny.

Can you hear me now?

Good.

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