Most students here have probably heard bits and pieces about Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s CIA nomination, or the #StandwithRand meme circulating Facebook and Twitter. Ordinarily, ceaseless talking in the senate for hours on end wouldn’t attract much attention period, let alone positive attention. The epic scale of the speech—nearly 13 hours—seems contrary to the progressive politics people have been hoping for. Like much of politics, understanding the issue requires a bit of the back-story.
There has been a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding the use of drone strikes in foreign countries, but many people, both liberal and conservative, had hoped that the use of drone strikes against American citizens on American soil would be unequivocally denounced. So when the Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder said, “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate…for the President to authorize the military use of lethal force within the territory of the United States.” The question he was responding to, from none other than Senator Paul, included a clause that was left out by Holder: “without trial.”
In other words, the White House says there might be cases where the government-sanctioned assassination of an American citizen on American soil without due process would be permissible. Completely hypothetical, of course.
Except that we’ve already killed an American citizen by drone strike. Anwar al-Aulaqi was killed in September 2011 in Yemen, with the blessing of President Obama.
To be fair, it should be noted that al-Aulaqui was directly or indirectly connected with no fewer than nine separate terrorist plots, including 9/11 and the Fort Hood shooting, and the actual number is no doubt much higher. If the Federal government cannot find a way to protect itself from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, we risk our own survival as a nation and the survival of our citizens.
That said, the ability for the President to assassinate US citizens without trial brings up enormous liabilities, liabilities which many feel run contrary to the mistrust of government that historically gave rise to the series of checks and balances that characterize our constitution. “I’m not saying that anyone is Hitler, don’t misunderstand me,” explained Paul, “but what I am saying is that…when democracy gets it wrong, you want the law to be in place.”
Though a critic of illegal wire-tapping and violations of civil liberties, CIA nominee John Brennan has been an outspoken defender of the legality and morality of the American drone-strike program in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, in spite of their reputation for “collateral damage.”
Paul had this to say of Brennan: “I have hounded and hounded and hounded him…Only after yanking his chain…does he say he’s going to obey the law. We should be alarmed by that.”
Given the solemnity and seriousness of the occasion, perhaps it was fitting that it came to an end in what Jon Stewart called “the traditional way that all filibusters must.” To the laughter of those watching, Paul explained, “I would go for another twelve hours to try to break Strom Thurman’s record but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I’m going to have to take care of one of those in a few minutes here.”
Though the filibuster didn’t stop the approval of Brennan’s nomination as the Director of the CIA, it did shine a spotlight on the slow but steady rise in unchecked power being attained by the government generally, and the executive branch specifically. Perhaps there are good arguments for violating the constitution on rare occasion, but preemptively allowing for such a precedent without the checks and balances that form the foundations of our government should raise red-flags for everyone who values the rights and freedoms afforded to us in years past. Their future is by no means guaranteed.