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.