Droning On

Yesterday Kentucky Senator Rand Paul staged an old-fashioned filibuster on the Senate floor.  Paul held the floor for almost 13 hours until the urgent call of nature caused him to yield the floor at about 1 a.m. this morning.

The target of Senator Paul’s filibuster was the nomination of John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency — but the broader target was the Obama Administration’s drone program.  Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to rule out the possibility that the President could lawfully order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil under extraordinary circumstances, such as a terrorist attack akin to September 11.  Paul considers that position frightening and an affront to due process rights of American citizens, and that’s why he took to the Senate floor.

I don’t agree with Senator Paul on many issues, but I applaud his use of the filibuster to draw attention to the drone issue, which I think has largely flown under the radar of the American public.  We need to have a national discussion about our use of drones, both in America and in foreign countries.  We should fully consider the costs and benefits of the use of drones overseas, and whether we think it is prudent for the President to have the unilateral authority to authorize drones to kill suspected terrorists in other, sovereign nations with which we are not at war.  There is no doubt that the drones have been effective weapons in the fight against al Qaeda, but are they being used too frequently and too indiscriminately?  The strikes have injured and killed apparently innocent civilians and deeply damaged the United States’ reputation in several countries.  Is it worth it?  That’s not a question that the President, alone, should be answering.

Domestically, do we really want to give the President the power to order the killing of American citizens in the United States — without a judge or jury or a finding of guilt by any other entity or branch of government?  Reserving for the President the right to do so in “extraordinary circumstances” seems like an ill-defined limit on presidential power.  Supporters of President Obama might trust him to make wise decisions with such power, but what about the next President, and the President after that?  Presidential power runs with the office, not with its occupant.  Gradual accretions of presidential power never seem to get reversed, they just continue to accumulate and accumulate until the president seems less like a chief executive of a three-branch government and more like a tyrant.

I’m not ready to yield the power to the President to order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil just yet.  I hope Senator Paul’s old-fashioned, bladder-busting filibuster causes Congress, and the American public, to pay more attention to this important issue that addresses broad questions of individual liberty, due process, and how our government should work.

Fast And Furious And Foolish

Let’s ponder, for a moment, “Operation Fast and Furious,” an ill-conceived, botched initiative that apparently was the brainchild of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) during the Obama Administration.  The fact that the effort was named after a hyper-macho, testosterone-laden Vin Diesel movie probably tells you all you need to know about the wisdom and thoughtfulness underlying the operation.

Operation Fast and Furious was supposed to help the BATF track and stop arms trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border.  As part of the operation, the BATF not only allowed loads of guns to be purchased and delivered into the hands of Mexican drug cartels but also, according to testimony from agents, prevented American agents from stopping the flow of arms across the border.  Unfortunately, the BATF couldn’t keep track of the guns, and they have ended up at crime scenes along the U.S.-Mexican border — including the scene where a U.S. border agent was murdered.  A recent letter from congressional investigators to Attorney General Eric Holder states, in part:  “The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in those activities.”

The stench surrounding Operation Fast and Furious is exacerbated by the fact that congressional investigators are claiming that the federal government is not being forthcoming about who knew about and approved the operation.  Recently the acting director of the BATF came forward, with his personal attorney, to testify before congressional investigators about apparent efforts by the Justice Department to block his testimony.  The DOJ denies any cover-up or wrongdoing.

With respect to the cover-up allegations, we’ll just have to see where the congressional investigation leads.  What does seem to be undisputed, however, is that this hare-brained operation involved U.S. agencies facilitating criminal activities that resulted in violence and death, including — apparently — the death of an American border agent.  How could any federal agency (or agencies, if more than one in fact was involved) have thought that injecting even more guns into the Mexican drug wars along the border was a good idea, and then been so careless in keeping track of the guns involved?

We should all keep the foolish riskiness of “Operation Fast and Furious,” and the unbelievably bad judgment exercised by those who approved and implemented it, in mind the next time we hear that the federal budget can’t be cut, or that we should just trust federal agencies and bureaucrats to make decisions on our behalf.