Behind Rand Paul's Filibuster of John Brennan

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaking on the floor of the Senate, as part of his filibuster of John Brennan's nomination. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaking on the floor of the Senate, as part of his filibuster of John Brennan's nomination. Senate Television/AP

Sen. Rand Paul is at it again: Angry about the Obama administration’s claim there may be situations when it might be appropriate to kill U.S. citizens on American soil in certain situations, the Kentucky Republican took to the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours, from Wednesday at 11:47 a.m. until almost 1:00 a.m. Thursday, to delay the nomination of John Brennan to become CIA director. The Senate could vote on Brennan’s nomination as early as Thursday.

For weeks, Paul has demanded answers about whether the Obama administration’s targeted killing program could apply within this country before he would allow a vote on Brennan’s nomination. In a letter this week, Attorney General Eric Holder insisted the U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in this country and has no intention of doing so — and would prefer to rely on law-enforcement authorities to pursue terrorists at home.

However, Holder added it is possible “to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States”. This could include a catastrophic attack in the nature of Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For his part, Brennan, currently Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told Paul in a letter he would have no “power” to authorize lethal operations in this country since the CIA would never conduct them.

None of this satisfied Paul, who was joined in his filibuster by colleagues including Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Jerry Moran, R-Kansas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; and even a Democrat — Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. “Are we so afraid of terrorists that we are willing to throw away our rights and our freedoms?” Paul said, after promising to “speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

The last verbal filibuster on the Senate floor was conducted in 2010 by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in opposition to tax legislation. Paul's filibuster was long, but still quite a ways from the Senate record: In 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., spoke for 24 hours, 18 minutes in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Senators’ concerns about deployment of armed drones at home were apparent earlier Wednesday during a Judiciary Committee hearing. Cruz asked Holder if a drone could kill a terrorist suspect who may be involved in plots but is “sitting quietly at a café” in the United States. Holder said, “No.”

"We would use our normal law-enforcement authorities in order to resolve situations along those lines and then use the normal things that you do when you try to decide if cops can shoot somebody," Holder said.

Even so, Cruz said he is planning to introduce legislation to make clear the U.S. government cannot kill one of its citizens on American soil absent an imminent threat.

Fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came out in defense of the military acting against an imminent terrorist threat at home. “Wouldn't that be kind of crazy to exempt the homeland, the biggest prize for the terrorists, to say for some reason the military can't defend America here in an appropriate circumstance?” Graham asked at the hearing. If a hijacked plane is headed towards the Capitol or White House, Graham said in the hearing, the military may need to launch Patriot missile batteries — and Holder agreed the military may need to act.

“Let's go back in time: What would we all give to have those Patriot missile batteries available on September the 10th, 2001, in New York and Washington?” Graham said. “It would have meant that we would have lost a planeload of American citizens, but we'd save thousands more. That's the world in which we live.”

This article appeared in the Thursday, March 7, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

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