Give Rand Paul credit—he decided to kick it old school on the Senate floor and filibuster in person rather than simply filing a procedural motion.
The result was the kind of spectacle we only see in Frank Capra films and Strom Thurmond lowlight reels: a U.S. senator on a one-man speaking marathon designed to bring national attention to an issue he believes is of critical importance to the country and the Constitution. In this case, it’s the Obama administration’s reluctance to say it would not rule out drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. That’s why Paul decided to filibuster the president’s nominee to be CIA director, explaining: “I don’t rise to oppose John Brennan’s nomination simply for the person. I rise today for the principle.”
Things got off to a surreal start around 11:50 Wednesday morning when, a few minutes into his filibuster, Paul asked: “Has America the Beautiful become Alice’s Wonderland?” and then imagined the queen screaming “Release the drones!” This is a scenario Lewis Carroll never contemplated.
Instead of resorting to cheap filibuster tricks like reading the dictionary or a phonebook, Paul delivered a real speech—albeit Castro-esque in length—discussing the constitutional principles at stake more or less off the top of his head for nearly 13 hours.
Paul warned of the inherent absence of due process that comes with drone strikes, memorably saying: “Your notification is the buzz of the propellers on the drone as it flies overhead in the seconds before you’re killed.” Paul also took aim at the practical implications of a perpetual war on terror: “When people say, ‘Oh, the battlefield’s come to America’ and ‘The battlefield’s everywhere,’ ‘The war is limitless in time and scope,’ be worried, because your rights will not exist if you call America a battlefield for all time.”
At times, Paul wandered into hyperbolic fantasies and indulged in dystopian nightmares to make his point, such as imagining whether a caravan of Americans traveling from a Constitution Party conference to a Libertarian Party conference might be targeted for assassination by drone strike like New Mexican–born Anwar al-Awlaki. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination,” he thundered. “It is something that should not and cannot be tolerated in our country.” It is also something that is not remotely contemplated.
But with this filibuster, Paul brought more attention to the issue of civil liberties than a hundred op-ed pieces penned over the past decade, giving rise to an unexpectedly broad coalition of constitutionalists and libertarians ranging from right to left, with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden joining his filibuster on the floor along with Republican Senate colleagues including Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Saxby Chambliss. That was an expansion of what The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake dubbed “the checks-and-balances caucus” in a must-read piece from two weeks ago.
Let’s be honest: the fault lines have changed in this fight, because George W. Bush is no longer president and 9/11 is more than a decade in the past. With President Obama in the White House, Republicans have rediscovered a concern with the overreach of executive power that almost none but Ron Paul, the senator’s father, expressed when their party was in power. On the flip side, Democrats are far more sanguine about their president’s use of lethal power to kill al Qaeda leaders without resorting to conventional boots-on-the-ground war. But Rand Paul has found support in liberal civil libertarians who—agree or disagree with them—have remained admirably consistent in their objections, regardless of which party is in the White House.
To buttress his argument, Paul weaved in the work of journalists ranging from The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, Wired’s Noah Shachtman, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, and The Daily Beast’s Bruce Riedel. Paul name-checked everyone from Hayek to Hitler, warning that “in a democracy you could somehow elect someone who is very evil ... when a democracy gets it wrong, you want the law to be in place.”
Paul’s criticism of Obama largely sidestepped hyperpartisan personal attacks. Though the senator raised the slippery-slope specter of martial law more than once, his primary complaint was the president’s shift on civil liberties in what was once officially called the war on terror. “Barack Obama of 2007 would be right down here with me arguing against this drone strike program if he were in the Senate,” he argued.
This is undoubtedly true. But alongside the question of executive power in this brave new world is the question of executive responsibility, namely the president’s constitutional oath to protect and defend the United States of America. As Yale Law professor and Daily Beast contributor Stephen Carter argued in his book The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama: “On matters of national security, at least, the Oval Office evidently changes the outlook of its occupant far more than the occupant changes the outlook of the Oval Office.”
Paul concedes that John Brennan will ultimately be confirmed CIA director, just as he reluctantly concedes that he eventually received the assurance from the administration he was looking for: “I have hounded and hounded and hounded, and finally yesterday I get a response from Mr. Brennan, who wishes to be the CIA chief, and he finally says, ‘I will obey the law.’ Well, hooray. Good for him. It took a month to get him to admit that he will obey the law.” Sarcasm aside, it is a reasonable point. Nightmare scenarios exist—9/11 or Pearl Harbor, for example—but the administration at least made a communications mistake in clouding the issue with ambiguity that ignores common sense. New technologies require different laws and procedures. At the very least they require clarification.
But in our time of hyperpartisan political kabuki, Paul deserves respect for advancing a serious, principled, substantive debate. This is what filibusters are supposed to be—and one of the lessons learned might be the necessity of real filibuster reform that requires senators to take the floor rather than hiding behind the passing of paper. In addition, it has provided a happy reminder that the word filibuster itself is a Dutch word for “pirate”—fitting because there is something renegade about the capturing of the Senate floor in such a solitary stand. I’d like to think this issue would resonate with the same widespread principled passion if a Republican were president, but given our recent history, I am not convinced that would be the case.
In such a worthwhile debate, one downside is the feeding of militia anxieties about the rise of a tyrannical government. It would be naive not to assume that at least some of the senators who clustered on the floor were looking to score political points and get some reflected glory with TV face time. But Paul’s stand was educational even if some of his colleagues saw it as high-rating political entertainment. These emerging technologies are deserving of serious civic debate, as long as they are grounded in reality and a fair degree of good will from our government. To his credit, Paul largely debated within these wise lines: “I really don’t think he’ll drop a Hellfire missile on a café in Houston like I’m talking about,” he said of Obama, “but it really bothers me he won’t say that he won’t.”