An Oratorical Drone Strike

As we write this Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is still talking on the Senate floor, waging a filibuster against the confirmation of Paul Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
All the press reports have dubbed Paul’s effort an “old-fashioned” filibuster to distinguish it from the modern easy-to-use variety, which is any procedural maneuver to block a simple majority, and some could not resist a reference to the climactic scene of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The marathon speech-making was intended as a protest against the Obama administration’s drone policies, which claim broad powers to strike against Americans without due process, but the tactic might have garnered more attention than the point it was making.

Which is a shame, because the drone policy deserves careful public scrutiny. In testimony before a Senate committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an assurance that “the government has no intention” of carrying out drone strikes in America but nonetheless insisted it has a right to do so in an “extraordinary circumstance.” Holder cited the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, as examples, but questioning by Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz revealed that more ordinary circumstances also suffice. Cruz asked “If an individual sitting quietly at a café in the United States, in your legal judgment, does the Constitution allow a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil to be killed by a drone?” A discomfiting amount of hemming and hawing followed before Holder replied that he did “not think that that would be an appropriate use of lethal force.” Only when pressed further by Cruz, who noted that he had asked about the legality rather than the propriety of such an attack, did Holder concede that there might be constitutional issues involved.

Such an expansive view of government power seems odd coming from Holder, who had been an outspoken critic of the previous administration’s harsh interrogation techniques, formerly insisted on civilian trials for such terrorists at Halide Sheik Mohammad, and whose law firm had noisily represented several of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but none of the senators bothered to question him about the consistency of his views. Many critics of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism protocols have undergone similar conversions since Obama took office, so perhaps the senators felt it wasn’t remarkable enough to warrant comment.

Some will contend that Obama’s critics are guilty of the same hypocrisy, and there probably are a few conservatives out there who would have felt quite comfortable with the new drone policies under the old administration, but Paul comes from strictly libertarian wing of the Republican and has been opposed to the war on terror’s expansion of government powers since the beginning. Although we have our doubts about Paul’s isolationist tendencies, they serve him well in this instance.

— Bud Norman

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