The most positive outcome of Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster—which ended when Paul was forced to take a bathroom break—was giving the American public a sense of the treacherous path that President Obama’s drone program could take, i.e. the targeted killing of Americans here at home. It was a marathon civics lesson and a scathing critique of President Obama’s civil liberties record.
The biggest flaw, however, was Rand’s refusal to strongly condemn the way drones are already being used overseas and to blame CIA nominee John Brennan for being the mastermind of a nefarious program that has led to the deaths of so many non-American civilians and spread anti-American sentiment globally. While mentioning many of the problems related to drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, Rand Paul stuck to the issue of killing Americans with drones, and even more narrowly, killing Americans with drones here on US soil.
Rand Paul decided to filibuster President Obama’s nominee after receiving a letter this month from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that refused to rule out the use of drone strikes within the United States in “extraordinary circumstances” like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Obama administration has also affirmed that Americans don’t have the right to a judicial process, just some vaguely defined “due process” that could land you on a “kill list” if high-level US officials deemed you were an imminent threat.
“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA,” Senator Paul began. “I will speak 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.”
Paul said that the U.S. Attorney General's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil was an affront the Constitutional due process rights of all Americans.
"Is objecting to your government or objecting to the policies of your government sympathizing with the enemy?" Paul asked, invoking the case of Jane Fonda. "No one will ever forget Jane Fonda swiveling around in North Vietnamese armored guns, and it was despicable,” he said. “And it's one thing if you're going to try her for treason, but are you just going to drop a drone hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?"
Paul also suggested that many college campuses in the 1960s were full of Americans who could have been considered enemy sympathizers. "Are you going to drop a missile on Kent State?,” he asked.
While a series of Republicans appeared on the Senate floor to stand by Paul, the only Democrat to show support was Ron Wyden from Oregon. Wyden is the member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who had used John Brennan’s nomination as an opportunity to pressure the Obama administration to give Congress the legal documentation for targeted killings. The pressure worked, at least partially. After two years of seeking the documents, with no response, the administration finally gave the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee a chance to see the documents. Wyden says it’s not enough. A true champion of transparency, he wants the papers to be made public. And he wants more documents, including the ones that lay out the criteria for the killing of non-Americans.
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Wyden said he would not oppose Brennan’s confirmation, but he felt 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.”
It was frustrating to hear the Senator waffle between supporting and not supporting lethal drones overseas. While he questioned the use of signature strikes overseas, strikes where people are killed simply on the basis of suspicious activities, he did not call on the government to stop them. He did not ask the government to stop the practice of hitting the same area twice, often times killing rescuers who are trying to help the victims of the first strike. He was not asking the government to take drones out of the hands of the CIA, a civilian agency that is supposed to focus on intelligence gathering. He did not ask for an accounting of civilian casualties overseas, and that the US publicly acknowledge when it kills civilians. Although he mentioned the case of 16-year-old US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike in Yemen two weeks after his father was killed, he did not demand a response from the government.
Paul’s concern was whether tactics used overseas could be transferred to American citizens within the U.S. His request from the government was simple. Paul repeatedly stated that he would be willing to move to a vote on Brennan’s nomination if the Obama administration gave a written response stating that it did not believe that the executive branch could target and kill American non-combatants on American soil.
But Paul did use the filibuster to speak out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said that he would have supported the Afghanistan war at the outset, but said it had since become far wider than its initial response to the Sept. 11 attacks. "The problem is as this war has dragged on, they take that authorization of use of force to mean pretty much anything, and so they have now said that the war has no geographic limitations," he said. "So it's really not a war in Afghanistan, it's a war in Yemen, Somalia, Mali. It's a war in unlimited places." Paul said that when Congress voted for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force post 9/11, they voted to go into Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us, not to authorize a worldwide war with no end, one that included America as part of the battlefield.
And he chided Congress for abrogating its authority to declare war. "Were we a body that cared about our prerogative to declare war, we would take that power back," he said.
Paul questioned whether the drones might be doing more harm than good, and if the United States could afford perpetual war. “We have to find a way to end war,” he said.
While progressives have all sorts of reasons to dislike Rand Paul’s Tea Party, small government libertarian views, killer drones is one issue on which progressives should make common cause with Paul and his growing legions of supporters. After all, it’s not about the messenger but the message. And compared to the Democratic Senators who have, with few exceptions, remained either silent or support of President Obama’s killer drones, Rand made a heroic stand. In gratitude, progressives should “Stand with Rand.”