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Democrats' silence on drones leaves right in unlikely alliance with activists
Code Pink activists, drones
Code Pink activists in Eric Holder's appearance before a Senate committee. Holder faced questions over the legality of America's drones policy. Photo: Getty Images

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Rand Paul filibuster shines light on Democrats' reluctance to question Barack Obama's controversial targeted killing policy.

Medea Benjamin, the outspoken co-founder of liberal protest group Code Pink, does not doubt what Democrats would think of America's current drones policy if George W Bush and Dick Cheney were still in the White House.

"They would have been yelling and screaming about it," she said.

But instead, with Barack Obama pushing a massive expansion of drone strikes abroad that includes killing US citizens, the leftist Benjamin has found herself allied not with Democrats, but with the unlikely figure of Tea Party favourite and hardcore conservative Rand Paul.

Paul's extraordinary filibuster in protest at the nomination of leading drone advocate John Brennan as new CIA chief highlighted civil rights and legal issues raised by drones, especially the prospect of killing US citizens without trial.

Yet it also shone a rare spotlight on Democrats' deep reluctance to question a policy defended by Obama as key to fighting terrorism but that has also cost hundreds of innocent civilians their lives, killed US citizens, prompted numerous lawsuits and a UN probe and outraged civil liberties organisations.

During Paul's almost 13-hour anti-drones speech – which focused mainly on the idea of striking US citizens – only one Democrat joined the queue of Republicans who eventually rallied to Paul's cause. That was Oregon's Ron Wyden, a longstanding critic of drones who has sought transparency for the legal basis the White House uses in drawing up its kill list of targets.

Benjamin believes simple political expediency lies behind Democrats' almost blanket silence and reluctance to criticise the White House on drones. "I thought it was great that Rand Paul was standing up against the drone programme and warning the American people of the dangers. The Democrats are too concerned with party politics and they fall in line with President Obama," she said.

Nor is Benjamin alone. Professor Amos Guiora, an expert in drones policy at the University of Utah, said the silence of Democrats in fully examining the implications of Obama's drones policy was only matched by a domestic media that had also downplayed the issue. "There is a deafening silence from two distinct groups. One is the Democrats and the other is the media. That is troubling as together that has led to the public being disengaged from the discussion," he said.

Guiora is far from a dove when it comes to combating terrorism. A former top legal adviser to the Israeli army, Guiora spent time in the 1990s advising Israeli officers on targeted killing programmes in the Gaza Strip. Yet he believes the secrecy surrounding Obama's drones policy, and its widespread use, have led to a potentially dangerous erosion in American civil liberties.

"It is all about criteria, standards and due process. Obama's programme is something that raises enormous red flags. It goes to the heart of what are our rights on American soil," he said.

Indeed, opposition to drones, which has been galvanised by Paul's dramatic piece of political theatre, has led to some strange bedfellows across America's political spectrum. The American Civil Liberties Union, a mainstay of the liberal establishment in America, also heaped praise on Paul.

"Rand Paul took a courageous and historic stand," said Christopher Anders, ACLU senior legislative counsel. "Americans, regardless of party, should join Senator Paul in his demand that the Obama administration come clean on the scope of the president's claim of authority to kill people away from any battlefield, including American citizens."

But behind the criticism of Obama, there are also hidden splits in the opposition to drones. Paul and his fellow rightwing Republicans focused their protests almost entirely on the prospect of targeting American citizens, especially in the United States itself. He repeatedly raised a hypothetical example of whether or not the White House could order a strike on a citizen – if suspected to be a terrorist – while they were sitting in a cafe or engaged in some other non-combat activity inside the US. In response to that, attorney general Eric Holder wrote to Paul stating: "The answer to that question is no."

However, that is not the question that many critics of drones – and new found fans of Paul's – are asking. Much of the outrage at the drones policy stems from its use abroad in a range of countries from Yemen to Somalia to Pakistan to Afghanistan and the establishment of new spy drone bases in troubled regions like west Africa.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the US has carried out some 364 drone strikes in Pakistan alone – with 312 occurring during Obama's time in office – that have cost up to 884 innocent civilians their lives. For anti-drones campaigners like Benjamin, whose activists invaded the confirmation hearings for Brennan, the conversation on drones sparked by Paul needs to be far broader and take in those strikes on foreign targets as well as US citizens. "The talk is all about killing Americans on US soil. The issue has to be about killing non-citizens too. The debate needs to be reframed," she said.


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