It’s rare to see on old-fashioned talking filibuster on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but last week Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had an important point to make.
Like many concerned about civil liberties, Sen. Paul had grave worries about the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude on drone strikes and citizens’ constitutional rights, and he brought them to the center of the national debate. Sen. Paul’s 13-hour filibuster was a step toward creating what should be a broader national discussion about the administration’s secretive and constitutionally dubious policy for drone attacks on citizens.
Since the 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic cleric and American citizen suspected of terrorist ties, critics across the political spectrum have lambasted President Barack Obama for a seeming lack of concern for the fundamental constitutional right to due process, which protects Americans from arbitrary government actions. The trigger for Sen. Paul’s filibuster, which delayed for a day the Senate confirmation of CIA director John Brennan, had been Attorney General Eric Holder’s response to a question about whether the administration believed that it could order a drone strike on a U.S. citizen inside the United States. While highly unlikely, Mr. Holder said, such action could in theory be “necessary and appropriate.”
It was unclear whether Mr. Holder meant targeting citizens in the midst of a deadly act or citizens merely plotting. It is an important distinction, because due process protections do not bar the government from killing someone to protect lives from immediate harm. The fogginess of Mr. Holder’s response was not what anyone concerned about civil liberties would have wanted to hear, and on Wednesday Sen. Paul began his filibuster, demanding a more definitive answer.
Broadcast live on C-SPAN and streamed online, it became a small Internet sensation and drew support from senators in both parties. When it inevitably ended, it not only had brought new attention to the issue of government executions of citizens without trial, it had prompted a clarifying response from Mr. Holder. “It has come to my attention,” he wrote afterward, “that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.”
The spectacle would have been little more than political theater if not for Obama administration’s secret assertions that it has the right to assassinate U.S. citizens overseas without even a judge’s permission, so long as the target cannot be arrested and is deemed to pose an “imminent threat,” with “imminent” interpreted in an absurdly broad fashion.
This arrogant strain of legal reasoning, exposed only by media reports, is often dismissed as affecting very few people. In fact, it is a precedent that deserves prolonged scrutiny. For a day at least, Sen. Paul’s filibuster kept a bright light on a policy too long held in the dark.
for The Post Editorial Board