Rand Paul's drone filibuster shakes up Republicans

Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster got results: The White House acknowledged that killing US citizens suspected of being terrorists must follow the rule of law. But it also shook up the Republican caucus.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky leaves the floor of the Senate after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill early Thursday. Later in the day, the full Senate voted, 63 to 34, to confirm Brennan.

Sen. Rand Paul’s 12-plus hour filibuster was never going to block Senate confirmation of John Brennan to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and indeed the full Senate voted, 63 to 34, Thursday afternoon to approve Mr. Brennan as the nation’s next spymaster.

But Senator Paul’s unusual maneuver – actually talking for hours on end, and not just threatening to filibuster – has had an immediate effect on a key issue that many lawmakers (and many voters) find troubling: the use of unmanned drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists, including, potentially, US citizens on US soil.

Forced to respond, Attorney General Eric Holder in a three-line letter to Paul Thursday addressed what had been posed by Senate Republicans as a constitutional 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,” Mr. Holder, wrote – at long last, in the view of his critics. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Holder would only say that killing a hypothetical suspected American terrorist on US soil who poses no immediate threat would be “inappropriate.”

Holder’s letter satisfied Paul.

“I’m quite happy with the answer, and I’m disappointed it took a month and a half and a root canal to get it,” Paul told CNN. “But we did get the answer. And that’s what I’ve been asking all along.”

Like his father, former presidential candidate and US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the junior senator from Kentucky is as much libertarian as he is Republican. Where most GOP lawmakers position themselves as foreign policy and military hawks, Rand Paul strongly questions some aspects of US policy here – particularly as in this case where constitutional issues regarding judicial due process are involved.

This rankles some senior Republicans. On Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona described some of what Paul had said during his filibuster as “simply false.”

Quoting from a Wall Street Journal editorial, Mr. McCain said, “If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in college dorms.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, McCain’s chief ally on such matters, called Paul’s unusual effort “ill-informed.”

“To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone, do you?” Mr. Graham said, an apparent reference to several junior Republican senators who joined the filibuster now and then to give Paul a break. “They had a drone program back then, all of a sudden this drone program has gotten every Republican so spun up. What are we up to here?”

In fact, Graham added, he was now going to vote to confirm Brennan as a way of supporting the US drone program.

In remarks to reporters Thursday, Paul said such criticisms indicate “a healthy debate in the Republican Party.”

“It used to be monolithic that whoever is in the country that we think are bad, we call them enemy combatants and we lock them up and throw away the key,” he said. “That’s the caucus arguing against what I’m saying. But there’s a healthy debate and people are starting to understand that just by calling someone an enemy combatant doesn’t make them an enemy combatant.”

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been forced to give in on issues related to drones, including providing the legal justification for their use in tracking and killing terrorists – an issue that has become more politically potent as new data about the numbers of civilian casualties becomes known.

At the White House Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney had to elaborate on what he said was “confusion” over the US drone program – in particular the issue Paul hammered on.

"The president has not and would not use drone strikes against Americans citizens on American soil," Mr. Carney said. "The legal authorities that exist to use lethal force are bound by, constrained by, the law and the Constitution. The issue here isn't the technology…. Whether it's a drone strike or a gun shot, the law and the Constitution apply in the same way."

The drone issue has made for some odd political bedfellows as liberals join with libertarians such as Paul in criticizing the program.

“Unlike those Washington conservatives who only object to centralized government power when the government is trying to regulate business or help the poor, Paul is reminding his fellow Republicans that the power to wage war is the most dangerous government power of all,” Peter Beinart writes in The Daily Beast. “He’s reminding Democrats that no president can be trusted with the unrestrained power to kill, not even one you like. And he’s reminding Americans that senators can still stand on principle, even when it costs them their sleep.”

Key elements of the tea party movement also have weighed in, supporting Paul and threatening some Republicans.

Graham, who is up for reelection next year, faced criticism from the tea party for attending a dinner with Obama Wednesday night rather than joining Paul in the filibuster, The Associated Press reports. Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said Graham was "clearly on the wrong side of this issue, and I think there will be consequences."

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