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The Drone Debate: A Matter of Trust

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In conversations with those opposed to the notion of drone attacks against U.S. citizens, on or away from American soil, I ask a question as a consistency test:

Is your opposition based on a blanket principle that no President should have such power, or is it a spurred by a mistrust of the current administration?

In many cases I get the first answer, so I know I am engaged with a libertarian mindset, which I always respect and often share. We should always take great pause before empowering government to take bold action unilaterally that could result in loss of life or property.

But such examples abound.

We allow police to burst into homes, sometimes without warrants, under certain circumstances. We allow the military even greater latitude, since they are chasing enemy combatants and not street criminals.

But the drone era has sparked a raft of new concerns born of modern warfare. The death by drone of terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011 in Yemen was met with some objection by those who argued that he was an American citizen and not an active combatant at the moment of his death.

I consider al-Awlaki’s citizenship to have dissolved the moment he took up arms against the United States. As for his combatant status, our security demands a broad definition. Limiting it to those who are actively aiming a weapon is insufficient.

In al-Awlaki’s case, we had an al Qaeda leader with links to two 9/11 hijackers, spending his days recruiting other Americans to join in his jihadist passions, among them Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.

Surely we are able to target enemy leaders in wartime. But things get sticky when the prospect arises of an enemy that attracts attention on American soil.

Make the enemy an American citizen in that hypothetical, and you get 13 hours of filibuster the old-fashioned way, unfolding Wednesday afternoon and evening in the Senate.

Watching Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and other Senators I admire greatly, I was taken with the stark phraseology of “killing U.S. citizens on American soil.” Senator Paul made particular and repeated mention of an image involving a drone strike executed during what might be considered terror downtime, or as he put it, “eating dinner” or “with their families.”

Wow. One imagines a Hellfire missile obliterating a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell.

Clarity is elusive amid such imagery. When this issue is boiled down, shelving the hawkish passions of those who want to nuke every terrorist we can find from Pakistan to Peoria, as well as the libertarian scenarios of unwarranted drone strikes blowing away families at Denny’s, here’s the root question:

Do we trust the President to have that kind of power?

If that answer is no, it’s no.

But I sense that for some, the answer is: it depends.

It depends on who the President is.

I don’t want to say some of the people professing universal opposition to such strikes are fooling themselves, but I’d like to see the reaction if a President they voted for, admired and trusted made the case that a key jihadist operative was holed up in some remote cave in the Montana wilderness, and this was the best way to take him out.

Proper debate would ensue on many levels. Would this strike be necessary? In a way, the whole notion of hitting our citizens on our soil is profoundly remote. The justification for drones is the lack of ability to attack from the ground.

Drone strikes make sense above the moonscapes of the Middle East, where we have sparse military forces and no police. In America, enemy combatants can be taken out more conventionally. But are there any scenarios in which a drone might be the last resort for the proper eradication of an enemy combatant?

Even if that is a tiny list, it becomes unwise to make a blanket claim of something we absolutely would not do.

For all my distaste for this administration’s foreign policy acumen, they are actually right not to say never, as Senator Paul wished.

Black-and-white pronouncements are often tricky in a murky war filled with judgment calls. What is an “imminent” threat? What is a “non-combatant?” And does citizenship evaporate the moment one joins an enemy and takes up arms against the United States?

I believe it does. Some Senators I have great respect for may disagree.

But one thing is clear. These vital issues are made vastly more difficult by a White House that has enormous trust issues. I do not trust them to boldly fight terror, and I do not trust them to tell the truth about the things they actually do.

This makes an already challenging issue a total mess for a nation that just wants to be safe and honor the Constitution at the same time.

It is impossible to know if a domestic drone attack issue will arise during the remaining years of Obama, or thereafter. But the debate will be easier to navigate come January 2017, if we are swearing in a President we can trust.

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