In case you missed his 13 hour filibuster of John O. Brennan’s nomination to be the next CIA Director, on the night of March 6th/7th Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made himself the darling of both the Tea Party/Libertarians and those on the right who fear that the government will send black helicopters to kill them as well as the anti-war/anti-drone crowd on the left who feel CIA drones hunt and exclusively kill Pakistani women and children. Rand began his filibuster by invoking the specter of fleets of drones hovering over US cities carrying out extrajudicial executions of Americans deemed to be traitors. Rand’s clarion call for the defense of our liberties began with the following shot across the bow of National Security Advisor Brennan (known to his critics as the Assassination Czar) and President Obama (aka President Obomba to his anti-drone critics):
I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA I will speak until I can no longer speak. 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. That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination. It is something that should not and cannot be tolerated in our country.[i]
On Fox News Paul continued to paint a picture of a frightening future stating “We’re talking about someone eating at a cafe in Boston, or New York, and a Hellfire missile comes raining in on them.”[ii] Seemingly reaching out to the anti-war left Paul also said “it’s one thing if you’re going to try her for treason, but are you just going to drop a drone hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?”[iii] In almost the same breath Paul went on to stir up the fears of America’s Muslim population stating;
If you are sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Mich., if you happen to be an Arab-American who has a relative in the Middle East and you communicate with them by e-mail and somebody says, ‘Oh, your relative is someone we suspect of being associated with terrorism,’ is that enough to kill you? For goodness sakes, wouldn’t we try to arrest and come to the truth by having a jury and a presentation of the facts on both sides of the issue?[iv]
Paul seems to have tapped into a popular fear of what their critics call “robotic killers” (the drones are of course not robotic, humans pilots fly them remotely) and Twitter reports there were over one million tweets sent about Paul’s filibuster.[v] Droneophia has become so rampant that towns are already banning them.[vi]
But is there any substance to the fears on the right and the left that have been stirred up by Paul’s news-making filibuster? Is the CIA really poised to start killing Americans in cafés across America?
A sober assessment of the facts related to the CIA’s Predator/Reaper drone campaign reveals that it is far less frightening than those on the fringe right and left would have us believe. For example, far from having vast fleets of killer drones ready to be dispatched across America to kill Americans, the Washington Post reports that the CIA operates a squadron of just 30-35 armed drones. [vii]
This small squadron of drones is focused on waging counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Agencies in Pakistan, a breakaway part of that country that has been called “Talibanistan.”[viii] There shariah law is harshly enforced, suicide bombers are trained to ply their deadly trade in Pakistan proper, Al Qaeda is given refuge, police and “spies” are be-headed and militants plan cross border attacks on Coalition troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Attempts by the Pakistanis to invade this no go zone have led to massive defeats of their forces on several occasions, including one where the triumphant Taliban beheaded Pakistani soldiers.[ix] In other words, arrest of the terrorists is impossible, hence the use of drones.
The second zone where drones are plying their deadly craft against terrorists is in the break away Abyan Province of Southern Yemen. It is in Abyan that militants tied to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to carve out a Taliban style Amirate or jihadi state last year. As in the tribal zones in Pakistan, attempts by the local army to arrest terrorists have led to scores of army deaths at the hands of tribal militants who defend Al Qaeda operatives in this remote region.[x]
It is in Yemen that American citizens have been killed by drones (British[xi] and German Muslim terrorists[xii] were killed by drones in the tribal zones in Pakistan as they plotted Mumbai style attacks in Europe, but their deaths did not excite the sort of furor in their home countries that has been raised in the US). To date four Americans have been killed in Yemen. The first was Kemal Darwish, a US-born Saudi who had fled to Yemen after being implicated as a member of the Lackawanna terror cell in upstate New York. Driving with him in his SUV at the time of the 2002 drone strike was Qaed Senan al Harethi, known as the “Godfather of Terror.” Harethi was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 which killed 17 sailors.[xiii]
The second drone strike was Anwar Awlaki, an American Yemeni who had traveled to Yemen and joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There he went from being Al Qaeda’s primary on-line inciter for such terrorists as Nidal Hassan (who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood) and Faisal Shahzad (the terrorist who tried to set off a bomb in Times Square) to an active terrorist plotter according to the New York Times.[xiv] He was involved in planning the so-called “Underwear Bomber” terror plot to blow up an airliner as well as attempts to blow up a UPS and Fed Ex plane flying from Yemen.[xv] Killed in the drone strike with Awlaki the so-called “Bin Laden of the Internet” was Samir Khan a Pakistani American. Khan was the editor of Inspire and had once proclaimed himself “proud to be a traitor to America.”[xvi] Among other articles he published in the magazine was “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
The fourth American to be killed in a drone strike was Awlaki’s son Abdul Rahman. Postings on several Yemeni al Qaeda websites after the son’s death claimed that Abdul Rahman Awlaki, who had been dubbed “Usayyid” (the Lion’s Cub) by al Qaeda to whom he was linked, had sworn that he wanted to be martyred just as his father had been before him.[xvii] A drone soon thereafter fulfilled his wish.
Incidentally, 69 percent of Americans approved of the drone killing of the senior Awlaki according to a subsequent poll.[xviii]
All four Americans killed by CIA or JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) drones shared one thing in common, they were operating with Al Qaeda in lawless zones of Yemen where they could not be apprehended, a point that was pointedly absent in Paul’s filibuster which overlooked the fact that terrorists and criminals can be arrested in San Francisco and other towns he mentioned. Based on precedent, it would seem that an American citizen would have to be operating with the Al Qaeda enemy in an uncontrolled foreign land in order to be a target for assassination. That point has been clearly made by Attorney General Eric Holder who stated that the government must determine that a US citizen poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, that capture is not possible, and that the killing would be consistent with laws of war.[xix] But the drone strikes against those posing an imminent threat are to be limited to American terrorists abroad. Holder would state in March 2013 “The government has no intention to carry out any drone strikes in the United States. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation in which that would occur.”[xx]
When asked directly by Paul “Should a President be allowed to target, and kill an American by drone attack, on American soil, without due process?” Holder curtly responded “It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.”
It would thus seem that unless an American is operating in the wild lands of Yemen with Al Qaeda the odds of him or her (even Jane Fonda), being killed in café by the CIA’s limited “fleet” of just 30-35 drones is highly remote. In summarizing Paul’s filibuster’s absurdity John McCain stated “We’ve done, I think, a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them think that somehow they’re in danger from their government. They’re not. But we are in danger from a dedicated, longstanding, easily replaceable-leadership enemy that is hell bent on our destruction.”[xxi] McCain essentially accused Paul of sensationalistic fear mongering on the issue when he further stated “Somehow to allege that the United States of America — our government — will drop a drone Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda, that brings the conversation from a serious discussion about U.S. policy to the realm of the ridiculous.”[xxii]
If McCain is to believed, for the time being at least it seems it is safe for Americans to enjoy their cappuccinos in cafes safe in the knowledge that their afternoons will not be ruined by, as Paul dramatically put it, “hellfire missiles raining in on them.”
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.[xxiii] He is author of the forthcoming book Predators. The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda[xxiv] as well as the recently released Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America’s Longest War.[xxv]
[xviii] “Americans Say Government Was Right to Eliminate Islamist Militant,” Angus-Reid.com, October 11, 2011.