GOP on Drones: Policy Shift or Political Amnesia?
Business + Economy

GOP on Drones: Policy Shift or Political Amnesia?

REUTERS/Chris Francescani

A few weeks back, Senator Rand Paul, the Tea Party darling from Kentucky, spent much of his 13-hour filibuster of now-CIA chief John Brennan warning that the Obama administration would use drones to target citizens here at home.

“I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,” he said on March 6.

On that day, fellow Republican upstarts Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz joined him in condemning Obama’s drone policy, pushing the filibuster to near-historic lengths. Partly because of the uncertainty about drones – but also partly because there was nothing else going on in Washington that day – Paul received heaps of media attention.

The next day, he made the rounds of the talk shows, making Obama’s drone policy the cause célèbre among Republicans. Since then, Cruz and other Republicans have continued to press the Obama administration on drones, implying that the White House will spy on and target Americans on U.S. soil. By the time the Conservative Political Action Conference  convened last week, the drone issue had taken hold of the base: 70 percent of attendees said they opposed the government’s use of drones. Paul won CPAC’s presidential straw poll, and is now considered a serious presidential candidate for 2016.  

It’s fair to say that drones catapulted Paul into the presidential discussion. But it’s also fair to say that for the broader Republican Party, it’s not clear whether the policy shift is a real evolution – or a case of Beltway amnesia. During the Bush administration years, the GOP backed a number of methods that invaded the privacy of Americans living on U.S. soil. Much of the party’s current stance on drones is at odds with the party’s past.

After the September 2001 terror attacks, the Bush administration claimed broad surveillance powers, not just abroad but at home. It instituted the National Security Administration’s warrantless wiretap program, which allowed the government to monitor calls, web activity, text messages and other communications with a person abroad without a warrant.

Federal officials arrested Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, labeling him an enemy combatant while refusing him due process.  he Bush White House also persuaded companies to provide private information on U.S. customers. Anyone willing to challenge these programs was considered un-American.

When Democrats questioned former Attorney General John Ashcroft about parts of the Patriot Act in 2001, he told lawmakers their comments “only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” In 2008, former Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said that the quick Iraq withdrawal backed by Democrats was tantamount to putting “a bullet right in the hearts of our troops who are there.”

Republicans do raise important questions about the use of drones to kill American citizens. One U.S. citizen with close ties to al Qaeda has already been killed overseas. =  And while the Obama administration has said it does not have authority to kill American citizens on U.S. soil with a drone attack, it’s been cagey about the rest of its drone policy, leaving serious questions unanswered about invasions of privacy

Perhaps Paul, Cruz and Rubio really have evolved from the Bush-era concept of what’s necessary to fight the war on terror to a more restrained model. (Cruz worked for Attorney General Ashcroft during the Bush administration, but did not make any public statements in support or opposition to Bush policies.) This stance puts them much more in line with their Tea Party bases

But even if that is the case, all three have proven to be savvy politicians – and are no doubt aware that many Americans are uncomfortable with drones. The dramatic filibuster was their way of getting voters’ attention, and all three are now being mentioned in the 2016 discussion.

As for the rest of the Republican Party, its new opposition to drones reeks of political posturing. During the Bush administration, CPAC endoresed the most extreme measures to combat terrorism, including torture. CPAC’s hostility toward Obama’s drone policy appears to be just another way to derail the president’s agenda – stoking public fears about an invisible death from above.