On Wednesday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul valiantly opposed the nomination of John Brennan for CIA Director, engaging in a lone filibuster for nearly 13 hours. Though Brennan was ultimately approved Thursday, Paul’s courageous stand brought much-needed attention to the Obama administration’s refusal to rule out carrying out drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil. As a result of a frenzy of public engagement on the issue, much supportive of Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder was forced to release a statement late Thursday declaring that President Obama indeed had no authority to use drone strikes against citizens in the U.S. Such a retreat represents a significant victory for the effort to stymie Obama administration overreach and blatant disregard for constitutional authority. Moreover, Sen. Paul should be commended for demonstrating what conservatives can accomplish when they passionately fight and stand on principle.
While the general subject of Paul’s epic effort was abuse of executive power and the Obama administration’s civil liberty policies, his main focus was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s disturbing letter responding to Paul’s question of whether, under certain circumstances, drone strikes could be carried out against U.S. citizens on American soil. “As members of this Administration have previously indicated, the U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so,” Holder wrote. He continued:
The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States[.]
Paul was rightly unsettled by Holder’s pronouncement that he “hoped” such a scenario would never arise and declaration that such an event did not face constitutional obstacles. The opening paragraph of his historic effort, the 9th longest speech in Senate history, set the tone for his rebuttal:
I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court. That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination. It is something that should not and cannot be tolerated in our country. I don’t rise to oppose John Brennan’s nomination simply for the person. I rise today for the principle.
Paul began his marathon session at 11:47 a.m. Wednesday and continued until 12:39 a.m. Thursday morning. At various times he was joined by fellow Republican Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Mike Lee (R-UT). Yet a key moment occurred in the fifth hour after the filibuster began, when Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced on Twitter that he was headed to the Senate floor to join his Republican colleague. When he got there, Wyden admitted that he intended to “vote for Mr. Brennan on the floor,” but he also concluded that “the executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny, because that’s not how American democracy works. That’s not what our system is about.”
At 4:45 p.m. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asked if Paul knew when he would end his filibuster so Brennan’s nomination could be brought to a vote. Paul responded that he would stop “if the president or the attorney general will clarify that they will not kill Americans on American soil.” Just after 7 p.m. Paul asked for Democrats’ consent to vote on a non-binding resolution opposing the killing of U.S. citizens on American soil. When Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) proposed a committee hearing in lieu of a vote, Paul continued talking, reminding his listeners that he voted to approve the nominations of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. “But I will not sit quietly and let [the president] shred the Constitution…I would be here if it were a Republican president doing this,” he contended. “Really the great irony of this is that President Obama’s opinion on this is an extension of George Bush’s opinion.”
The greater insult to the American people was arguably the indifference expressed by some Democrats. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) referred to the filibuster as “background noise.” Nancy Pelosi refused to watch Paul, contending that ”there are certain things that fall into the category of ‘life is too short,’” even as she expressed the hope that “Democrats will use the filibuster sometime as well in that way.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called Democrats out. “I agree that one of the saddest things we’ve seen during the eight hours that Rand Paul has been filibustering is the crickets chirping from the other side of the aisle, with the exception of Ron Wyden, and I appreciate his coming down,” Cruz said Wednesday on Mark Levin’s radio show. “But with that exception, where were the Democrats? How can they not be every bit as outraged as all of the rest of us are?”
Democrats may have been reticent to offer support, but several leftist Americans are not. Christopher Anders, Senior Legislative Council at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C., indicated that Paul’s concerns transcend political ideology. “The information Senator Paul is looking for goes to the very core of what the US is and who Americans are as a people,” Anders told Breitbart.com. He further noted that the standards this administration apparently considers viable “are not standards recognized by any court in the land, any court anywhere in the world.”
Jon Stewart, the liberal-minded host of “The Daily Show,” praised Paul as well. “I can’t say that I agree with Rand Paul about everything, but as issues go, drone oversight is certainly one worth kicking up a fuss for,” said Stewart. Liberal actor John Cusack also supported Paul, even as he tweeted about the lack of support from Senate Democrats. Radical leftist and former Obama administration Green Jobs Czar Van Jones called Paul a “hero” who was “sticking up for civil liberties.” Even the rabidly leftist group Code Pink supported the Senator, offering supportive tweets during his filibuster, and following up with a visit to his office yesterday to thank him.
In stark contrast, the reliably clueless John McCain (R-AZ) took to the Senate floor yesterday to criticize Paul, contending the premise of his filibuster was “simply false.“ ”I watched some of that, quote, debate, unquote, yesterday,” McCain said. “I saw colleagues who know better come to the floor and voice some of this same concern, which is totally unfounded.”
He piled on even further. ”If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about,” added McCain, quoting extensively from a Wall Street Journal editorial that also slammed Paul. ”Calm down, Senator,” it said. “Mr. Holder is right, even if he doesn’t explain the law very well. The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an ‘enemy combatant’ anywhere at anytime, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant.”
Both McCain and the Journal editors miss the central point of Paul’s argument: absent due process of some sort, who gets to define an American citizen as an enemy combatant?
Yet McCain doubled down on his fecklessness, characterizing the filibuster itself as a bad precedent. “What we say yesterday is going to give ammunition to those critics who say that the rules of the Senate are being abused. I hope that my colleagues on this side of the aisle will take in that information,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also criticized his fellow Republicans for supporting Paul. “To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone, do you?” Graham said. “They had a drone program back then, all of a sudden this drone program has gotten every Republican so spun up. What are we up to here?”
What lawmakers are “up to” is finding a clear procedure for targeting American citizens on American soil. One that isn’t left in the hands of a cabal of politicians whose process and decision-making are preformed in total secrecy. Yet Sens. McCain and Graham appear satisfied that the executive branch is entitled to abrogate citizens’ constitutional right of Due Process without the least bit of transparency or obligation on the part of the government to explicitly state the legal justification for such an extreme measure.
Paul responded forcefully to the attacks, blasting McCain and Graham. “They think the whole world is a battlefield, including America, and that the laws of war should apply,” Paul said in an interview on Fox News. “The laws of war don’t involve due process, so when they ask you for an attorney you tell them to shut up. That’s not my understanding of the way America works. I don’t think the laws of war apply to America, I think the Bill of Rights do and I think it’s a disservice to our soldiers that our senators up there arguing that the Bill of Rights aren’t important.”
In the end, it was Paul who was vindicated. Shortly before the final vote on Brennan’s nomination yesterday, the Kentucky Senator received a three-sentence letter from Eric Holder. ”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,” Holder wrote.
Both the filibuster and Holder’s latest assertion should build momentum behind bipartisan legislation proposed last month in the House by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Ted Poe (R-TX). Their bill would require warrants in order to perform several types of drone surveillance, and prohibit the arming of drones in U.S. airspace. ”As we enter this uncharted world of drone technology, Congress must be proactive and establish boundaries for drone use that safeguard the constitutional rights of Americans,” Poe said in a statement last month.
Rand Paul deserves a great deal of praise for bringing together Americans of all political stripes. He gets additional points for wresting critical information from an Obama administration that has made a regular practice of stonewalling questions it does not wish to answer, which it attempted to do in this case. Paul’s bold effort provides the model of the future of the conservative movement and what can be accomplished when those on the right forcefully and engagingly champion the cause.
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