The Slatest

#TBT: That Time Rand Paul Wouldn’t Stop Talking About Drones

Rand Paul used to like talking about drones.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

After Thursday’s dramatic news that two hostages held by al-Qaida, one American and one Italian, had been killed in January by what the White House called a “counterterrorism operation” and the Wall Street Journal called a “CIA drone strike,” everyone in Washington was waiting to hear from Sen. Rand Paul. The sense of expectation was understandable: Out of everyone in Congress, and also out of everyone running for president, Paul should be willing to talk about drones and the people they kill, having spent close to 13 hours on the Senate floor doing just that in 2013.

But by midday Thursday, Sen. Paul didn’t have any comment on the White House’s admission. Later, both his presidential campaign and Senate offices released identical statements, sent to Slate by email, which read in their entirety: “It is a tragedy that these American hostages lost their lives, my prayers and thoughts are with their families.”

Back when all he wanted to do was talk about drones, Paul held up John Brennan’s confirmation as director of the CIA for half a day, because he said he could not, in good conscience, compromise on his belief that even Americans believed to be fighting the American military in foreign countries were entitled to the due process afforded them by the Constitution. The topic found renewed relevance on Thursday, when President Obama confirmed that—in addition to the hostages—two Americans viewed as enemy combatants were also killed in drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, including one who died alongside the hostages.

Bloomberg reported that Rand Paul spent Thursday avoiding the entrances to the Senate floor where reporters might be able to catch him. Eventually Politico was able to ask: What about the two dead Americans who’d been accused of joining al-Qaida? Had they been deprived of their due process rights?

Paul’s answer gave a preview of the verbal contortionism the media can look forward to from the former evangelist for nonintervention, as he tries to convince a hawkish GOP base to put him on the presidential ticket.

I don’t think there’s a question of whether or not you’re involving yourself in the war if you’re holding hostages. The things I’ve pointed out in the past have been more with regard to people not involved with a war zone or with combat. If these two people are American citizens and they were sitting in Cairo and we suspected them of a problem, then I would rather … have the police go in. They were in the mountains on a military base holding hostages, so there’s not a lot of question about whether or not they were engaged in combat against America.

It’s a stark contrast to Paul’s position as he pulled into the home stretch of his 12-hour filibuster in 2013, when he said that the government’s secret process for deciding when to use drone strikes to target combatants, including Americans, violated the Constitution.

I think you don’t get half the Fifth Amendment. I don’t think you acknowledge that the president can obey the Fifth Amendment when he chooses. I don’t think you acknowledge that Fifth Amendment due process can somehow occur behind closed doors … I would say that it is worth fighting for what you believe in. I think the American people can tolerate a debate and a discussion … I just hope that this won’t be swept under the rug, and that this isn’t the end of this, but that this is the beginning of this.

And I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond’s record but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering, and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here.

Before he wrapped things up so he could finally go to the bathroom, Sen. Paul called on his fellow senators to “use their ability to impact the president’s decision” about the use of drone strikes.

Use your influence to tell the president to do what I think really is in his heart, and that is to say: Absolutely, we’re not going to be killing Americans, not in a combat situation, and we will obey the Constitution, that the Fifth Amendment does apply to all Americans, and there aren’t exceptions. 

Rand Paul’s delayed, equivocating response to Thursday’s announcement by the White House is a cautious move, but even by the standards of pandering to public opinion, it might have missed the mark: When Paul stood up against drone strikes two years ago, the public was with him. A Gallup poll conducted after his drone filibuster suggested more than half of Americans were against sending drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas, and 79 percent opposed using them within the U.S. to take out Americans accused of terrorism. Some of them had to be Republicans.

And if the gentleman from Kentucky still feels skittish about reiterating his objections to drone strikes, we hope he will take a few minutes and watch this inspirational clip, in which Ted Cruz joins Paul in the middle of his filibuster to read a printout of supportive tweets pledging to #standwithrand. 

The other 2016 presidential contenders will likely soon weigh in as soon as enterprising reporters are able to find them. Maybe “Drone or no” will dethrone “Would you go to a gay wedding?” as the GOP hopefuls’ most-hated gotcha question on the campaign trail.