In relation to the Boston Marathon bombings, Sen. Rand Paul told Fox Business today that, “If there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them.” He went on:

“Here’s the distinction — I have never argued against any technology being used against having an imminent threat an act of crime going on,” Paul said. “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a Drone kills him or a policeman kills him, but it’s different if they want to come fly over your hot tub, or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone, and they want to watch your activities.”

Civil libertarians are flipping out claiming Paul has reconciled himself with an omnipotent police state and forgotten all about his 13-hour filibuster, the aim of which was to clarify that the government did not have the authority to unilaterally kill American citizens. Matt Wilstein at Mediaite claims his statements “directly contradict” it, writing, “by indicating he would have made the call to kill the suspect with drone if he’d had the chance, Paul seems to have betrayed the principles of his filibuster.” He indicated no such thing.

To be fair, Paul wasn’t as clear as he should have been. It seems like he’s trying to describe a firefight in which the cops are forced to neutralize a thief robbing a liquor store, but the way he actually describes it sounds far more innocuous; he doesn’t mention the thief posing any threat. Jim Bovard takes him at his word, saying Paul “endorses using drones to kill suspected liquor store robbers.” But does anyone actually believe he’s endorsing the use of a hellfire missile to take out a thief that presents no threat? If he thought that was OK, do you think he might have allowed for it in the bill he introduced banning domestic drone strikes?

Bovard is right that there are problems with the ever-broadening definition of what constitutes an “imminent threat.” But the important thing to remember here is that any politician is unlikely to unequivocally oppose law enforcement techniques that would allow officers to do their jobs out of harm’s way, up to and including using robots to kill criminals. It seems like a lot of libertarians are opposed to any drone use by law enforcement. While I can’t fault them on principle, it seems like an untenable position politically, and anyway that ship has sailed.

The senator has always been open to the idea of drones being used, with a warrant, in the process of a police investigation. And, as a practical matter, if that could have meant, say, a hundred fewer Boston doors knocked on by SWAT teams, isn’t that a net victory for civil liberties? The bit about armed drones, “I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him,” is a tad more strongly worded than prior statements but by no means new. Last summer he responded to a question about armed drones this way:

Costello: What about in this instance? One Texas sheriff told reporters his agency is considering arming his drones with rubber bullets and tear gas. Let’s say there’s a large crowd gathering and you need some crowd control. This type of drone might be able to diminish any problems on the ground. Would that be allowed under your bill?

Paul: Anything that would require a warrant. It would have to have a warrant. And I’m concerned about obviously arming drones. But I don’t want to say that I’m arguing against technology. For example, there’s a bomb in a car, I’m very happy that we have automated robots that can go up to the car and investigate the bomb and we don’t have to risk a human. Same with drones. If they can save lives, that’d be one thing. Arming drones obviously sends up pictures of the military and I don’t think domestically armed drones are a good idea. What I would say is that drones could be used if you have a proper warrant. But that means you go through a judge.

For better or worse, the senator has been consistent in his thinking.

Update: Senator Paul has released a statement saying his “comments last night left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed.”

Here’s the rest:

“Let me be clear: it has not. Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster.

“Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets.

“Fighting terrorism and capturing terrorists must be done while preserving our constitutional protections. This was demonstrated last week in Boston. As we all seek to prevent future tragedies, we must continue to bear this in mind.”