Targeted Killing: Drones

Lindsey Graham's Iowa Drone Strike Out

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, May 18, 2015, 6:22 PM

It's a crowded field for Republican presidential candidates, but Lindsey Graham knows how to differentiate himself from the pack: he loves drone strikes more than his competitors.

Speaking the other night at the Iowa Republican Lincoln Dinner, as the Washington Post reports,

Graham made clear he is positioning himself as the most hawkish candidate in the field.

“If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL [the Islamic State], I’m not gonna call a judge,” Graham said, a reference to Sen. Rand Paul’s earlier remark about how the NSA should call a judge to obtain a warrant before tapping into people’s phone records. “I’m gonna call a drone and we will kill you."

As Justice Black might say, I like my drone strikes as much as the next man, but I am constrained to admit that Graham's formulation of presidential authority to use drones is indefensible. Graham fashions himself a serious guy on matters of foreign and defense policy, but this subject warrants more care from a would-be commander in chief than he gave it here.

Here are his remarks in context. To be fair, the comments quoted below follow a string of jokes and may have been worded light-heartedly to fit in with the mood of his comments. Still, to my mind, Graham seems deadly serious here:

I'm thinking about running for President. You get a house, a car, and a plane. It's a pretty good gig. If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL---anybody thinking about that?---I am not going to call a judge. I am going to call a drone. And we will kill you.

We're at war. And I'm tired of treating the war as a crime. You may be tired of fighting the terrorists, but they're not tired of fighting you. I've been to Afghanistan 23 times. I'm going back Memorial Day week for my last tour of duty. I've learned a lot. I've seen the enemy up close, and I've seen people who would live in peace with us if they could. And I've got one simple goal: To make sure this war never comes over here again, and that means some of us have to go over there to fight.

Just to be clear:

  • We don't use drone strikes domestically---not even against Iowa political rallies (however sorely we might be tempted).
  • We don't use drone strikes against people are merely thinking of joining the enemy. We use drone strikes against people who are meaningfully part of enemy forces.
  • We do call judges before executing warrants domestically, and law enforcement authorities are the only coercive powers the federal government invokes against terrorist suspects within the United States.
  • Terrorism can be both war and crime and, depending on the circumstances, can invoke the law enforcement powers of the president, the commander in chief powers of the president, or both at the same time.

I've always liked Lindsey Graham, and I like the fact that---unlike so may politicians---he says what's on his mind, completely unfiltered by what's politic for him to say. That said, this kind of talk is not healthy. It communicates wrongly what the rules are, and what authorities the president really has. Graham is a smart guy, but folksy homespun wisdom doesn't always make for good law.