John Brennan‘s appointment to head the CIA reached the senate floor in a final phase that was supposed to witness a quick “stamp of approval” but in a stunning move Sen. Rand Paul announced that he would filibuster the appointment; for 13 hours he stood up on the Senate floor and spoke about the reasons why he found Brennan’s appointment problematic.
Sen.Paul’s central aim was not to stop the appointment, which he knew could not be prevented but rather to ask the Obama administration whether it believes it has the authority to kill a US citizen on US soil.
Sen.Paul’s filibuster was, for sure, one of the better moments of our “Democracy” in recent memory. Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, it was a leader from the staunch libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement, a wing that many across the political spectrum are uncomfortable with (for good and bad reasons) who courageously brought attention to this important question.
I too admit to some discomfort with Paul, largely for his track record of being more than willing to sacrifice his libertarian principles at the altar of Islamophobia.
It must not be forgotten that in contradiction to his libertarian principles Paul has run bigoted Muslim baiting ads, opposed the construction of the Park51 Center (aka “Ground Zero Mosque”), admonished the TSA for not profiling individuals based on their backgrounds enough, reversed his opposition to Guantanomo Bay, has wanted the government to keep tabs on the whereabouts of students from the Middle East and has called for the imprisonment or deportation of those who are deemed to be attending “radical Islamic lectures.”
When Muslims come into the picture, Paul’s laissez-faire politics go out the window. Paul — whose championship of private-property rights has led him to oppose even the Americans With Disability Act — didn’t support the right of Muslims to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan near ground zero. Instead, he said Muslims should contribute the money that would have been used to build the mosque to the 9/11 victims’ memorial fund.
What’s more, Paul, who proposed legislation to curb what he saw as the TSA’s overly invasive powers to pat down fliers, admonished the agency last year for its unwillingness to profile people based on their background. In 2010, he reversed his stance on the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, going from opposing it to saying, “Foreign terrorists do not deserve the protections of our Constitution … These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil. I will always fight to keep Kentucky safe and that starts with cracking down on our enemies.”
In May of last year, Paul, who adamantly opposes the Patriot Act as a terrible violation of civil liberties, called for keeping tabs on foreign students from the Middle East. “Let’s say we have 100,000 exchange students from the Middle East — I want to know where they are, how long they’ve been here, if they’ve overstayed their welcome, whether they’re in school,” he said in a radio interview.
Even worse, in the same interview, the senator — who touts himself as a strong defender of free speech — called for imprisoning or deporting people who attend radical Islamic speeches. “It wouldn’t be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after — they should be deported or put in prison,” Paul said.
So it is perhaps a bit quizzical and ironic to hear Sen.Paul’s concern for the Arab-Americans of Dearborn, many of whom are Muslims (Islamophobes love to dub Dearborn, “Dearbornistan”),
Paul told NBC the U.S. government’s policy could lead to a situation where “an Arab-American in Dearborn is walking down the street emailing with a friend in the Mideast and all of a sudden we drop a drone” on the Arab-American.
Sen. Paul said “if you are sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Mich., if you happen to be an Arab-American who has a relative in the Middle East and you communicate with them by e-mail and somebody says, ‘Oh, your relative is someone we suspect of being associated with terrorism,’ is that enough to kill you? For goodness sakes, wouldn’t we try to arrest and come to the truth by having a jury and a presentation of the facts on both sides of the issue?”
Alas, if only Sen. Paul had consistently shown such a concern for the life and liberty of Muslim Americans!
While recognizing Paul’s troubling parlay with Islamophobia we should not be distracted from his historic and admirable stand on the Senate floor–for all US citizens.
There were many who recognized the importance of Sen.Paul’s filibuster, mostly those very rare Cassandrian voices concerned with civil liberties such as the ACLU. There was also significant abuse and scorn directed at Paul from hypocritical mainstream Democrats and Republicans. Bill Maher for instance seemed more concerned about whether Paul’s hair is real or not, enlightening us all he jokingly compared Paul’s hair to pubic hair.
Attorney General Eric Holder finally responded to Sen.Paul’s questions, writing,
“It has come to my attention 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.”
For some Democrats this apparently resolved the whole matter. Disputing this myth, Glenn Greenwald, in an excellent article on the hypocrisy of Democrats and the myths they have forwarded to try and debunk Paul’s filibuster notes,
Defenders of the Obama administration now insist that this entire controversy has been resolved by a letter written to Paul by Attorney General Eric Holder, in which Holder wrote: “It has come to my attention 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.” Despite Paul’s declaration of victory, this carefully crafted statement tells us almost nothing about the actual controversy.
As Law Professor Ryan Goodman wrote yesterday in the New York Times, “the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has acted with an overly broad definition of what it means to be engaged in combat.” That phrase – “engaged in combat” – does not only include people who are engaged in violence at the time you detain or kill them. It includes a huge array of people who we would not normally think of, using common language, as being “engaged in combat”.
Indeed, the whole point of the Paul filibuster was to ask whether the Obama administration believes that it has the power to target a US citizen for assassination on US soil the way it did to Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a “combatant”, that he was “engaged in combat”, even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast. If the Obama administration believes that Awlaki was “engaged in combat” at the time he was killed – and it clearly does – then Holder’s letter is meaningless at best, and menacing at worst, because that standard is so broad as to vest the president with exactly the power his supporters now insist he disclaimed.
The phrase “engaged in combat” has come to mean little more than: anyone the President accuses, in secrecy and with no due process, of supporting a Terrorist group. Indeed, radically broad definitions of “enemy combatant” have been at the heart of every War on Terror policy, from Guantanamo to CIA black sites to torture. As Professor Goodman wrote:
“By declining to specify what it means to be ‘engaged in combat’ the letter does not foreclose the possible scenario – however hypothetical – of a military drone strike, against a United States citizen, on American soil. It also raises anew questions about the standards the administration has used in deciding to use drone strikes to kill Americans suspected of terrorist involvement overseas . . .
“The Obama administration’s continued refusal to do so should alarm any American concerned about the constitutional right of our citizens – no matter what evil they may or may not be engaged in – to due process under the law. For those Americans, Mr. Holder’s seemingly simple but maddeningly vague letter offers no reassurance.”
Indeed, as both Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller and Marcy Wheeler noted, Holder, by deleting the word “actively” from Paul’s question (can you kill someone not “actively engaged in combat”?), raised more questions than he answered. As Professor Heller wrote:
“‘Engaged in combat’ seems like a much broader standard than ‘senior operational leader’. which the recently disclosed White Paper described as a necessary condition of killing an American citizen overseas. Does that mean the President can kill an American citizen inside the US who is a lower-ranking member of al-Qaeda or an associated force? . . . .
“What does ‘engaged in combat’ mean? That is a particularly important question, given that Holder did not restrict killing an American inside the US to senior operational leaders and deleted ‘actively’ from Paul’s question. Does ‘engaging’ require participation in planning or executing a terrorist attack? Does any kind of direct participation in hostilities qualify? Do acts short of direct participation in hostilities – such as financing terrorism or propagandizing – qualify? Is mere membership, however loosely defined by the US, enough?”
Particularly since the Obama administration continues to conceal the legal memos defining its claimed powers – memos we would need to read to understand what it means by “engaged in combat” – the Holder letter should exacerbate concerns, not resolve them. As Digby, comparing Bush and Obama legal language on these issues, wrote yesterday about Holder’s letter: “It’s fair to say that these odd phrasings and very particular choices of words are not an accident and anyone with common sense can tell instantly that by being so precise, they are hiding something.”
At best, Holder’s letter begs the question: what do you mean when you accuse someone of being “engaged in combat”? And what are the exact limits of your power to target US citizens for execution without due process? That these questions even need to be asked underscores how urgently needed Paul’s filibuster was, and how much more serious pushback is still merited. But the primary obstacle to this effort has been, and remains, that the Democrats who spent all that time parading around as champions of these political values are now at the head of the line leading the war against them. (emphasis added)
Finally, we cannot forget the wider implications of drone warfare. We now live in an era in which the USA is less popular than when George W. Bush was president, these abysmal approval levels are in fact the gravest threat to our security, and yes, they are a result of our policies.
The USA is also singular in its wide based support for drone strikes: