Another View: Filibuster brings drones to the forefront

8:10 PM, Mar. 10, 2013  |  Comments
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The 13-hour filibuster in the U.S. Senate carried on between noon Wednesday and early Thursday morning by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has so many fascinating angles to it, it's hard to know where to start.

There's the fact that it was one of the few actual standing filibusters these days, and one of the longest in history. Mr. Paul openly stated his reasons for blocking a vote and talked as long as he could in service of his mission.

There's the fact that while Mr. Paul was wrongly standing in the way of President Barack Obama's choice to lead the CIA, John Brennan, the reason he chose - seeking more information about the president's rationale for using drones on American citizens - was a worthy one.

There's the fact that when it comes to that issue - an American's constitutional right to due process, as guaranteed in the Fifth and 14th amendments - those on the left and right of the political spectrum are in agreement. Mr. Paul, who is more libertarian than he is Republican (by today's standards anyway), is far to the right on most issues. But here's New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, a favorite among liberals, following the filibuster night on Twitter: "Shameful that no Dems but (Oregon's Ron) Wyden have joined this. I mean some things are just not partisan."

Case in point: The St. Louis Dispatch has been trying to draw attention to the drone issue since October 2011, when it wrote: "But the Constitution grants rights to U.S. citizens, no matter how hateful and loathsome their beliefs, that it doesn't afford to citizens of other nations. It makes no exception for citizens who take up arms against their country. Traitors can be hanged, but not summarily."

There's the fact that after the filibuster failed, as it inevitably had to, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went to the Senate floor to harangue his colleague and anybody who supported him, saying: "I don't think what happened yesterday is helpful to the American people." Presumably Mr. McCain believes his increasingly frequent, but shorter, harangues are helpful.

With all due respect to the one-time maverick, he's just dead wrong. Mr. Paul's filibuster was helpful for two reasons.

The most important one is that Americans, some of them anyway, turned their attention away from all the sequester spin cycle long enough to discover that Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter Monday suggesting that, hypothetically, if the president knew that another Sept. 11 or Pearl Harbor was about to be carried out by an American on U.S. soil, that he might have the constitutional authority to shoot a Hellfire missile into that American's car for the purpose of saving thousands of lives.

That's a big deal. That's a very specific and drastic extension of the authority the president claims, and has used once, to target American citizens on foreign soil who have joined the enemy.

For more than two years, Congress has been mostly absent in this very important debate. It is far too complicated to fit into easy partisan sound bites.

Mr. Paul changed that. Good for him.

The answers aren't easy. Would we sacrifice one life to save thousands, even if that person deserved the same constitutional protections the rest of we Americans have? Would all other options have to be ruled out first? What if the president is wrong? Where does the slippery slope begin and where will it end?

This is the debate the country had about the Patriot Act, but mostly too late, after post-Sept. 11 fears led our leaders to rush to limit civil rights to protect us from terrorists. It's the debate we should be having about the drone technology, which changes the battlefield and the ethics surrounding the use of deadly force.

The key here isn't whether Mr. Paul and his supporters are right, or whether hawks like Mr. McCain are, it's about forcing the debate and bringing it into the American consciousness. Mr. Paul did that.

At the same time, he brought attention to how truly broken the Senate is by using an old-school filibuster. Just a day before Mr. Paul's filibuster, the Senate blocked yet another of Mr. Obama's judicial appointments. We don't know why. We don't know who. Nobody stood. Nobody talked.

Maybe that's why Mr. McCain was so upset on Thursday: Mr. Paul called out his own party for its failure to have the courage of its convictions.

The truth hurts.

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