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Can Congress's Few Drone Dissenters Void the UAV War's Blank Check?

Or would they be fine with the use of drones, as long as they have broad legal shelter?
March 14, 2013, 3:40pm

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, via the Daily Californian

A few days ago, Barbara Lee, the only Congress member with the courage to vote against Bush’s blank check for perpetual war, sent a letter to the Obama administration requesting legal justification for its drone program. She also requested “an articulation of the Executive’s claims” and insight into the future of the drone program, which has been sorely lacking from this administration so far.

“It is far past time that the White House openly discuss the drones program. The President has full reign to protect the United States as Commander in Chief, but Congress has a vital oversight role in this issue,” declared Lee, “and we cannot shy away from those responsibilities. We have to protect the checks and balances that are at the heart of our democracy.”

The signees of the Lee letter include a number of House members, such as John Conyers, that all sport a level of political consistency vastly superior to that of Rand Paul’s Loyal Opposition. Paul has been lauded for his stand on drones, but his filibuster cadre didn't necessarily have such high-minded intentions. Progressive blogger Howie Klein dug up the dirt on the filibuster participants and concluded, with the exception of Paul himself, they all make quite a bit of campaign money off the success of Obama’s drone program.

“The biggest drone makers are General Atomic Aeronautical, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon," Klein wrote. "They've been handing out the checks across the aisle big time and almost all of the filibusterers other than [Paul] took exceedingly large amounts of money from these drone makers. Just a quick glance coughed up these big donations to some of today's filibusterers last year.”

Lee's skepticism of the drone program boils down to whether or not Obama will be transparent about UAV killing large swaths of people.

There are problems with both Paul's and Lee's stands. With Paul’s filibuster, the issue was specificity. The senator was far too hung up on the hypothetical case of an American being droned in a café, as opposed to a wider examination of America’s military attacks throughout the world. Lee’s preoccupation isn’t nationality, but legality; her skepticism of the government’s program boils down to whether or not Obama will be transparent about UAV killing large swaths of people.

But credit where credit is due: Paul’s filibuster and Lee’s letter are nothing to scoff at, especially with so many politicians on both sides of the aisles either sitting this important issue out, or vociferously supporting the administration. However, the obsession with legalities inevitably leads one to a moral dead end.

Last month, in an Al Jazeera editorial titled “Barack Obama and his Enabling Opposition," Charles Davis addressed a Washington Post op-ed by Keith Ellison, one of the House members who signed Lee’s letter.

“Ellison laments the civilian deaths caused by his president's wars," Davis wrote. "That's a good thing, the lament, and not so common in his town. But the gist of Ellison's opposition - essentially, ‘Why isn't Congress signing off on these deaths?’-doesn’t serve any real good. Indeed, rather than simply denounce the use of unilateral air strikes to kill foreign, poor and brown young people with guns who are not members of the NRA, Ellison dissents by praising imperial efficiency, which seems bad.”

Rep. Lee discusses the "blank check for war" that's fueled the War on Terror.

Davis concludes, “Like many on the professional centre-left, the biggest problem Ellison seems to have with US drone policy is that it cuts politicians like him out. As Ellison puts it, 'unilateral kill lists are unseemly and fraught with hazards.' But he can't even bring himself to condemn the unilateral killer, bizarrely arguing that ‘the president should be commended for creating explicit rules for the use of drones.’”

Davis criticism reminds me of a question I heard journalist Madiha Tahir ask last year, that I have been quoting ever since: "I think when we frame things legalistically, we tend to think that resolving problems in the legal texts will resolve them in the real world, when we actually know that is not what happens. What we may end up doing, quite likely, is legalizing the war: then what?”

A striking example of this problem can be found within Barbara Lee’s finest moment: her aforementioned, lone dissenting vote against Bush’s authorization for widespread war after 9/11. Known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, the knee-jerk resolution passed by Congress on September 14, 2001 authorized phenomenally broad powers.

Would Congress's lone dissenters be fine with the use of drones, as long as they have broad legal shelter?

John Yoo, former assistant US attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, cooked up the details of that joint resolution, and their broad contours were entirely intentional. As Wall Street Journal Supreme Court correspondent Jess Bravin details in his new book, _The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay: _

Neither necessary nor appropriate was defined, and the sweep of permissible targets essentially was unbounded; the plural ‘nations’ included more than Afghanistan, while ‘persons’ subject to the president’s force could be anywhere, in an allied country such as Britain or Canada-or, like the 9/11 hijackers, within the United States. ‘Even the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution says it’s limited to Southeast Asia,’ Yoo said, pleased that he had provided Bush more authority than even Lyndon Johnson obtained through the 1964 measure he took as carte blanche for the Vietnam War.

So, here's Lee asking for the administration to be transparent about its drone program and its argument for drones' legality. If the Obama administration obtains some sort of broad justification for its actions, one that transcends Attorney General Eric Holder addressing Paul's hyper-specific scenarios or the administration leaking its rationale to the New York Times, what then?

Would Congress's lone dissenters be fine with letting the White House do whatever it wants with UAVs, as long as they have broad legal shelter? That's a scenario we've already seen play out, but this time the rising tide of dissenters in Congress may finally check the growth of executive powers.

Shortly before Lee sent her letter, I wondered why John Conyers, another signer, deleted a tweet in support of Paul’s filibuster less than ten minutes after posting it. My best guess was that it was simply a matter of political posturing; perhaps he became aware of Lee’s forthcoming letter and decided to align himself with a group of progressive House members, as opposed to the confounding assortment of screwballs that spoke up in defense of Paul.

Bipartisanship has, justifiably, devolved into a dirty word outside of Washington, cynically implemented by both sides to celebrate the banal, domestic destruction of two-party harmony. But imagine if some of these wildcard fruitcakes and an assortment of these progressive politicians pushed back, as a unit?

Maybe such resistance would open up the necessary space to have a national conversation, not just about whether an American could be assassinated or if the Obama administration should release the basis behind its authorization, but about the expanding nature of our drone program, what it means for us, and what it means for the rest of the world.