The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza gave his most recent “Worst
Week in Washington Award” to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose
assault weapons ban got stripped from a Democratic gun control
package last Tuesday for lack of support. Fair enough, but if
nonhumanoids can be eligible for the award (and why discriminate?),
I’d say that drones had the “worst week in Washington” last
On Wednesday at a Senate
Judiciary Committee hearing, members from both sides of the aisle
seemed genuinely disturbed by the idea of “government drones
buzzing overhead monitoring the activities of law-abiding
citizens,” as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, put it. When one of the
witnesses, an industry lobbyist, complained that the very term
“drone” had unfairly “hostile connotations,” he ran into a buzzsaw
courtesy of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who snapped, “We’ll decide
what we’ll call them.”
On Friday, it was more bad news for friends of our robot
friends. In ACLU v. CIA, the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C.
Circuit forcefully rebuked the Obama administration for
stonewalling on an ACLU request, under the Freedom of Information
Act, for records related to targeted killing with unmanned aerial
vehicles. Given administration officials’ repeated public comments
on the CIA’s drone program, the agency’s refusal even to confirm or
deny the existence of responsive documents was “neither logical nor
plausible,” the court said.
In the wake of the 13-hour filibuster of March 6 by Sen. Rand
Paul, R-Ky. — in which he used the word “drone” some 245 times —
we’re starting to see pushback from the courts and Congress on the
use of flying, spying robot weapons at home and abroad.
In an influential 2011 article, “The Drone as Privacy Catalyst,”
law professor Ryan Calo predicted that the dystopian images that
drones evoke could spur much-needed reforms to American privacy
law. Their association with military spying and targeted killing,
the way they “represent the cold, technological embodiment of
observation,” would provide the “visceral jolt” that reformers need
to make their case.
That’s certainly happening on the home front. CNET’s Declan
McCullagh reports that a bipartisan “anti-drone revolt” has
prompted the introduction of new federal and state legislation
restricting “law enforcement plans to fly more drones equipped with
high-tech gear that can be used to conduct surveillance of
Americans.” Professor Calo, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing,
warned that “American privacy law places few limits on aerial
surveillance” and urged Congress to “instruct the FAA to take
privacy into account as part of its mandate to integrate drones
into domestic airspace.”
The “visceral jolt” that Sen. Paul’s filibuster provided seems
to be shifting the debate on the drone wars abroad, as well.
As Slate’s Dave Weigel observed yesterday, public opinion polls
show “A 50-Point Swing Against Targeted Drone Killings of U.S.
Citizens” abroad since Sen. Paul’s anti-drone marathon. Even
erstwhile Obama allies are speaking out: Gen. James E. Cartwright,
former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned
about “blowback” from perpetual remote-controlled war. And on March
13, John Podesta, the former head of the Center for American
Progress, took to the pages of the Washington Post to praise Sen.
Paul’s filibuster and warn that with his secretive approach to
drone warfare, “President Obama is ignoring the system of checks
and balances that has governed our country from its earliest
Some say the filibuster is an obstructive anachronism. Sen.
Paul’s marathon session earlier this month argues otherwise. With
it, he started a national conversation about the use of drones at
home and abroad that promises to go on much longer than 13