Just before noon on Wednesday morning, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took the floor of the Senate to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. Unlike the secretive threats of filibuster used to block legislation in the modern Senate, Paul rose to make a statement the old fashioned way, by standing to “speak until I can no longer speak.”
Paul’s filibuster kicked off after Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a letter that the Obama Administration believes it could use military force in the form of drone strikes to kill an American on U.S. soil.
“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA,” Paul began. “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.”
Throughout his nearly 13-hour stand, Paul was joined by at least 10 other senators, including Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, to discuss the Obama administration’s drone policy.
Theatrics and procedure aside, Paul’s point is an important one. The fact that the Obama administration spent more than a split-second pondering whether they had the right to suspend due process to drop bombs on the heads of U.S. citizens on American soil should make even the staunchest Obama supporter pause.
“Are you going to just drop..a hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?” asked Paul, referencing the American actress who was photographed supporting the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, “Are you going to drop a missile on those at Kent State?”
The frank truth is that Obama’s record on civil liberties has been abysmal. For a president who once threatened to overturn any laws “encroaching on civil liberties unnecessarily,” the suggestion that he has the right to sentence Americans to death behind closed doors is shameful.
Who imagined that Candidate Obama, who once claimed “your next President will actually believe in the Constitution, which you can’t say about your current President” would go on to become a President Obama who would not only continue President George W. Bush’s drone policies, but actually expand them?
We have killed thousands of individuals, both guilty and innocent, with drone strikes around the world. Among them have been American citizens engaged allegedly in acts of terror abroad. While that reality merits discussion in its own right, the question that Paul and company are asking the president is far simpler than that:
Does the president have the authority to execute U.S. citizens on American soil without any sort of judicial process?
The answer isn’t hard.
No, the president does not get to assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner. No, the president doesn’t get to condemn Americans to death without external review, transparency, or culpability. No, the president does not have that authority, nor should he ever.
Obama and Holder’s assertion that they don’t intend to ever approve such an execution is hardly reassuring. “Intending not to is not the same as saying ‘I won’t,’” said Paul. “His oath of office says … I will protect, defend and preserve the Constitution. It doesn’t say, I intend to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution except for when it’s infeasible or inconvenient.”
Killing U.S. citizens without trial is not only wrong, it’s unacceptable, unconstitutional, and un-American; and we deserve a better answer than “Well, we might bomb you.”
In the end, Paul admitted that his filibuster will do nothing to truly prevent Brennan’s nomination. But while Wednesday’s oratory adventure may be little more than a blip on the record of Brennan’s long career of public service, focusing America’s attention on the very real issue of civil liberties, constitutionally mandated checks and balances, and the Obama administration’s drone policy was a public service.
Regardless of our politics, Paul’s symbolic stand is one we should honor and take seriously moving forward. This is what democracy looks like, and it’s time the rest of us started paying a little more attention.