My Continuing Adventures in the Drone Debate

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Over the weekend, I spent several hours debating the overlapping topics of drones, the war on terror, Eric Holder, Rand Paul and, yes, semantics with Glenn Greenwald on Twitter. Not shockingly, several of my closest friends wondered out loud why on Earth I would engage in such an endeavor considering how, in their view, Greenwald is incapable of conceding even the smallest point and therefore debating him in 140 characters or less is not unlike smashing my face against a brick wall. Of course, my only response to their concerns is the honest one: I simply can't help it. Louis CK, in his Live at the Beacon Theater show, observed how women "get to" have perverted thoughts, but men "have to" have them. And so it is with me and debating politics. My friend Chez and others get to. I have to. It's my nature. It's not the debate that will give me an aneurism -- it's not having the debate that'll make my head explode.

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I have no intention of recapping the entire debate here. You'll have to clickoverto Twitter for the play-by-play, but mainly, though, I'd like to cover a few points that Greenwald and others have made throughout the last week or so on these adjoining topics encompassing the president's war powers and his use of targeted killings.

My primary gripe continues to be that anyone who finds even the slightest amount of nuance about- and context for this issue is summarily dismissed as an "Obama lover," an "Obamabot" or whatever the latest childish generality happens to be  popular these days. Naturally, it's been hurled at me on multiple occasions here, on social media and at The Huffington Post even though the cornerstone of everything I've written has been to demand that the president be immediately stripped of his war on terrorism powers; that the war on terrorism end in lieu of more traditional means of counterterrorism; and that the use of drone technology be regulated by Congress so its risk-free ease of use isn't abused. (Unlike unmanned drones, human combat forces, whether on the ground, on the sea or in the air carry the grave responsibility of casualties and therefore officials are more cautious about deploying them. Take the risk of casualties out of the equation, and we can only imagine what kind of hell might be unleashed.)

So I'm not sure how I or anyone else with a similar view can be considered a so-called "Obama apologist." Speaking for myself, I'm demanding that this president give up a very large array of war powers. And as I've noted before, Obama is uniquely positioned to do just that, having successfully tracked down Bin Laden and given his track record on capturing and killing al-Qaida operatives and their associates. His record is such that very few people, other than kneejerk Islamophobes, could possibly question his tenacity thus far. But if he passes along these endless war powers to the next president, and if that president happens to be more hawkish than he is, I truly fear that the temporary war powers will become permanent, further solidifying the imperial, unitary executive.

Yet what I'm reading from Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler and others is that any self-identifying progressive who's currently demanding the repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the hastily passed post-9/11 law that's the primary source of the president's war powers in the war on al-Qaida, is merely giving Obama a pass by circumventing direct blame on the president himself. But I'm not quite sure what the alternative is. I mean, what is a president other than an elected citizen with extraordinary powers granted to him by Congress, the Constitution and, in some cases, presidential tradition? In my view, there's no greater form of accountability than to demand that this most powerful human in the free world give up a large chunk of that power. What I and many others are demanding and, in my case, have demanded for quite some time going back to the Bush administration, is that via an act of Congress and a presidential signature, the commander-in-chief give up a practically limitless (some would say "bottomless") well of latitude in hunting down terrorists. That's no small deal, and he will absolutely be attacked for doing so. However, a potentially endless war can't carry with it endless war powers for the sole reason that these powers would become permanent and dangerous -- even in the hands of an otherwise benevolent leader.

Beyond that, what more could possibly be demanded? What else do these hyperkinetic bloggers and writers want? Should I be shaming the president's character? I could spend lots of time hectoring the president for being a dictatorial, blood-thirsty homicidal maniac -- a baby killer who eats terrorist livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti (I don't believe he's any of these things). But I doubt that would make much of a difference. I doubt the president would react well to personal attacks and, in fact, everything I know about his character leads me to believe that he responds best to pressure that's based on factual, rational and tenacious arguments. This is my intention. If you think this approach isn't screechy enough or fails to rise to the "Glennzilla" precedent, I have no apologies for you.

It goes without saying that Greenwald et al believe their screeds are factual and rational. There might be shreds of that to be found, but reality is very difficult to find amongst the shaming, the obfuscation, the strange alliances and the constantly shifting goal posts. From here forward, I'll address those things.

Regarding the shifting goal posts, much of my Twitter debate with Greenwald focused around the second letter sent by Eric Holder to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that read like so:

Dear Senator Paul:

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.

Sincerely,
Eric H. Holder, Jr.

As you can plainly see, Holder quoted Rand Paul's question, then responded with "no." The "no" answer was also in response to demands from Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to either answer "yes" or "no" instead of using longer explanations and words like "not appropriate" and so forth. And obviously the topic at issue was the use of drones on American soil (technically above it). So Holder responded accordingly per instructions from Paul and Cruz, along with Greenwald and others who've been demanding to know where the president draws the line (as if it matters).

But as soon as this second letter was released, the goal posts moved -- and disingenuously so. What launched my Saturday rant to Greenwald on Twitter was his tweet to me in which he linked to a post by law professor Ryan Goodman in The New York Times. Goodman's entire article was centered around a demand to know what exactly Holder and, by proxy, the administration meant by the phrase "engaged in combat."

What, exactly, does the Obama administration mean by “engaged in combat”? The extraordinary secrecy of this White House makes the answer difficult to know. We have some clues, and they are troubling.

It might otherwise be a solid topic for a column, but for the fact that there's one major and very obvious problem with Goodman's thesis: Holder didn't use the phrase "engaged in combat." He was merely quoting Rand Paul's question, "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" The appropriate man to ask about the "engaged in combat" phrase, therefore, ought to be Rand Paul. He asked the question.

I illustrated the reaction from Goodman, Greenwald and others in script form:

RAND PAUL: "Does the Obama administration eat puppies?"
HOLDER: "No."
GREENWALD ET AL: "What does Holder mean by 'eat puppies?'"
ME: "WTF?"

Now we're parsing semantics even though the "engaged in combat" phrase is pretty self-explanatory, especially given Holder's prior letter in which he wrote that the president reserved the right to kill anyone on American soil who's in the process of attacking America, a la Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Move the activity outside the borders of the United States, however, and the policy changes to encompass the tenets of the AUMF, allowing the president the power to attack anyone directly involved in al-Qaida operations against the U.S. and its allies. Admittedly, and to repeat, the wild card might come in the form of another president who could take advantage of the fact that the AUMF makes no mention of American borders. Thus we have another reason to repeal the AUMF.

It's clear that no response will be adequate enough, shy of a response that involves the resignation of the president. Two letters in as many days and a senate testimony wasn't good enough. Repealing the AUMF isn't good enough. It's no wonder there's a perception among some observers Greenwald and others have a separate agenda, about which they haven't been entirely forthright. But I'll leave that speculation to others and take all of this at face value. If I thought there was an ulterior motive, I wouldn't try to debate with Greenwald.

One area where I believe Greenwald hasn't been forthright is his libertarianism (see UPDATE below), even though many people consider him to be a far-left progressive. It begins to make sense why Greenwald was so quick to defend and support Rand Paul's filibuster last week. They're both libertarians, though Paul's limited government stance ends at a woman's vagina. Rand Paul: a dogmatically anti-choice nullificationist hailing from the pre-Civil War John C. Calhoun school of pro-slavery, pro-states rights orthodoxy, according to author Sam Tanenhaus. Paul is a sitting U.S. senator and a man of considerable power and prestige to whom Greenwald didn't hesitate to toss his full-throated support in spite of Greenwald's alleged watchdog-everyone-in-power reputation. But when it comes to the president, no such support has ever been offered shy of an occasional and damned-by-faint-praise kudo. Why? Why does Rand Paul -- again, a senator -- get such unflinching, uncritical support on this one thing when the president never gets such support from Greenwald and his acolytes?

Meanwhile, he had no problem with conflating my view on drones, etc, with the views John Yoo, Dick Cheney and other Bush era torturers. If he had bothered to pay attention to what I've been writing rather than shaming me with bad company, he'd know I have little or nothing in common with the Bush neocons. But at the same time, it's an odd line of attack coming from a man who supports a paleoconservative anti-choice nullification fetishist. Greenwald also proudly agrees with Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts on the Citizens United decision -- he agrees with Scalia on corporate personhood and money-as-speech. We're talking about Antonin Scalia, who's other election law views include the notion that the Voting Rights Act is a "racial entitlement."

And finally, it's difficult to take seriously anyone who markets in wild conspiracy theories about the president, be they Birthers or Benghazi-Gate conspiracy theorists like the aforementioned Rand Paul who believes the late Ambassador Chris Stevens was running guns from anti-Qaddafi Libyan rebels to al-Qaida rebels in Syria. Specifically, Greenwald and Wheeler each posted items about how John Brennan, after his confirmation as the new head of the CIA, took his oath on a copy of the Constitution that didn't include the Bill of Rights. Shock horror! The accusation here is that he obviously did this to send a signal that the Bill of Rights and all the subsequent amendments are meaningless to him. In fact, he chose a hand-notated George Washington draft of the Constitution because of its historical significance. It just happened that the draft pre-dated the ratification of the Bill of Rights. To buy into such conspiratorial nonsense is to take the same tinfoil-hat posture as the wingdings who insisted Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) took his oath on the Koran because he supports Shari'a law. It's bullshit, and it highlights the utter lack of reason and rationality coming from these people.

All told, you might think I'm insane, but I actually enjoy debating Glenn Greenwald. He's a talented writer and he's whip smart. I simply dislike his disingenuous approach, his constant shame-mongering and his total intransigence. But I think we can (or at least we should) agree that it's time to end this ugliness by ending the war on terrorism and by returning the American counterterrorism effort to its traditional place in our palette of foreign policy and intelligence goals. This is the end game, isn't it? Ending it. Everything else is secondary in the broader effort to prevent this war and its accompanying war powers from carrying on in perpetuity.

UPDATE: A Twitter follower called this document to my attention in which Greenwald claims that he's not a libertarian because he's supported a series of liberal causes. I will take him at his word, though I still question his vocal support for Rand Paul in spite of Paul's deplorable other positions including fetal personhood and his arguments against the Civil Rights Act, etc. President Obama and other Democrats never enjoy such latitude and support from Greenwald.

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