New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Michael Shear found "right-wing conspiracy" mongering in the aftermath of the unusual 12-hour filibuster by Republican Sen. Rand Paul protesting the White House's failing to rule out the use of drone strikes on American soil or against U.S. citizens: "Visions of Drones Swarming the Skies Touch Bipartisan Nerve."
That slightly dismissive headline on the front of Saturday's edition ("Visions" assumes an abstract and an unreasonable fear) is matched by the story, which tilts a little to the left in labeling and to the Obama administration in its dismissive tone toward White House critics, pitting "liberal activists" against "right-wing conspiracy theorists" and "self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution." In contrast, during the Bush years the Times took seriously the most paranoid fears of liberals about the Patriot Act.
The debate goes to the heart of a deeply rooted American suspicion about the government, the military and the surveillance state: the specter of drones streaking through the skies above American cities and towns, controlled by faceless bureaucrats and equipped to spy or kill.
That Big Brother imagery -- conjured up by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky during a more than 12-hour filibuster this week -- has animated a surprisingly diverse swath of political interests that includes mainstream civil liberties groups, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, conservative research groups, liberal activists and right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Benjamin Wittes, a national security scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about drones, said he thought Mr. Paul’s marathon was a “dumb publicity stunt.” But he said it had touched a national nerve because the technology, with its myriad implications, had already deeply penetrated the culture.
“Over the last year or so, this thing that was the province of a small number of technologists and national security people has exploded into the larger public consciousness,” Mr. Wittes said.
On the right, Mr. Paul has become an overnight hero since his filibuster. Self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution have shouted their approval on Twitter, using the hashtag #StandWithRand and declaring him to be a welcomed member of their less-is-better-government club.
“The day that Rand Paul ignited Liberty’s Torch inside the beltway!” one Tea Party activist wrote on Twitter. “May it never be extinguished!”
But even as the right swooned, the left did, too. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon -- the only Democrat to join Mr. Paul’s filibuster -- said the unexpected array of political forces was just the beginning, especially as Congress and the public face the new technologies of 21st-century warfare.
But the issue is larger than Mr. Paul, whose ambitions may include a run for the presidency in 2016. For many, Mr. Paul gave voice to the dangers they whisper about to anyone who will listen: that the government is too powerful to be left unchecked.
“It’s not merely the black helicopter crowd of the folks on the far right,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “What Rand Paul had to say about drones absolutely fired up conspiracy theorists on the left as well as the right.”
Some national security experts find the campaign overwrought, but Mary Wareham, the advocacy director for the arms division of Human Rights Watch, noted that the Defense Department in November issued a policy directive on autonomous weapons that recognized the challenges they pose.