Jimmy Stewart must be turning over in his grave.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) conducts a 13 hour filibuster on the Senate floor, ostensibly to force the Obama administration to answer a purely hypothetical question on drone policy, and suddenly the freshman Member is compared to the legendary Senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
A nations’ capital too dysfunctional to deal with a glaring budget crisis of its own creation, celebrates a spectacle as a symbol of courage.
It is cruelly disappointing.
Really, a Senator speaking for half a day non-stop is considered an accomplishment? Back in his Senate days, Joe Biden could do that with an opening statement at a hearing. Yet newly minted Senator Ted Cruz of Texas compared Paul’s effort to the defenders of the Alamo.
Davey Crockett is probably turning in his grave too.
What makes this so perplexing and frustrating is that Paul conducted his filibuster regarding a hypothetical; the use of drones in a role that has never been contemplated or considered. Specifically, does the president have the authority to use a drone to kill an American on American soil?
Attorney General Eric Holder tried answering Paul’s question on Monday when he said that in an extraordinary circumstance, such as the September 11th attacks or the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, it might be “necessary and appropriate” for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force in the United States.
Paul was unsatisfied and engaged his filibuster.
But as much as it pains me – and it pains me greatly – Holder is correct.
To refresh everyone’s memory, this is precisely what President George W. Bush did on 9-11 when he authorized US military aircraft to shoot down American airliners with American passengers, taken over by foreign terrorists. The overriding national security imperative to protect the American people and government made that extraordinary choice a mortifying but necessary reality.
Holder belatedly came back on Thursday with this reply to Paul, “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? No.”
Paul said he was satisfied with the answer.
So Paul received the “right” answer on a drone policy question that no one was asking or contemplating. And this is what we celebrate as leadership in Washington?
Paul’s filibuster is both a spectacle and a distraction because it diverts from the real issues and challenges with American policy on the use of drones that pertain to basic constitutional guarantees.
We do not need hypotheticals to engage a debate on drones. We have real actions to consider.
The United States government intentionally targeted and killed a native-born American who had taken up a senior leadership role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and who had directed terrorist operations targeting the US, including the Detroit “panty-bomber” and the Fort Hood shooting - Anwar al-Awlaki.
I originally wrote about this in October 2011.
At the time, there was little public concern that the US government had targeted and killed an American without any kind due process. For many Americans, Awlaki deserved to be targeted and killed for what he had done as part of Al Qaeda.
But this is the rub.
If rule of law is to have any consistent meaning for each American, then the depth of Awlaki’s treason against his country cannot deprive him of his basic constitutional rights. Indeed, he becomes the test case for those rights.
While Americans who commit treason by defecting to the enemy have never enjoyed (nor do they enjoy) a special protective status on the battlefield, it is quite a different paradigm when technological advances permit the Executive to find and kill a specific American without any form of due process.
That is the crucial distinction where technology has outrun the law. I previously wrote about this here.
This is where we need focus. This is where we need clarity. This is where we need transparency. We desperately need those reforms because the drone program is vital to US national security, and deserving of the full support and confidence of the American people.
The evolution of drone technology and the augmented intelligence collection and integration that support it, have provided the United States with the most potent and effective tool yet developed to wage war on terrorists.
They can run, but they cannot hide.
Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been decimated by the drone program. And while Al Qaeda goes on as a franchise in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, it will be the drone program that will take the battle to the enemy to foil any fresh attempts to attack American interest overseas or our homeland.
It is the job of Congress and the public to insist that in protecting our interests and citizens, that the Administration act scrupulously according to the law authorizing force, and specifically recognizing that new technology requires new measures to ensure the rights of Americans – especially those who have committed the gravest crimes against their nation.
In talking up targeted killings of Americans in sidewalk cafes or the potential alternate history of drones killing Jane Fonda for her advocacy during the Vietnam War, Paul and his posse make a serious and legitimate issue into the preposterous.
It is not too far a stretch to believe that the Senator’s eyes were not on the clock counting up the hours of his filibuster, but on the calender counting down the days to Iowa and 2016. But I digress.
And while DC is transfixed by a long-winded Senator talking about drone strikes on anti-war movie stars, we have this real paradox.
The Administration remains reluctant to share any data with the public on the targeted killing of Americans operating with terrorists overseas – indeed having killed an American overseas without any due process – but Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, and former propagandist for Al Qaeda – a non-American – is captured and taken to NYC for a civilian trial.
What is wrong with this picture is what is wrong with this debate.
Why is that so hard for everyone to see?