Truthdigger of the Week: Rand Paul
Editor’s note: Every week Truthdig recognizes a group or person who seeks the truth or takes some action to make the world a better place. This week we find ourselves torn between two politicians with very different perspectives. Ideology is not a factor in the selection of our Truthdiggers, and to that end we’ve decided to commend both Sen. Rand Paul for his filibuster seeking increased transparency of the government’s use of drones, and Hugo Chavez, who spent the last 14 years working to improve the lives of his country’s poorest citizens. To read our tribute to Chavez, click here.
The confirmation of John Brennan, the man tapped by President Obama to head the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared to be a slam dunk. That is, until Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., took to the Senate floor to begin a lengthy filibuster of Brennan’s nomination that served as a scathing indictment of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy.
“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul, who vehemently opposed Brennan’s nomination, said on the Senate floor shortly before noon Eastern time Wednesday as he began his old-school style talking filibuster. “I will 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.”
By its end, nearly 13 hours later, Paul had indeed sounded the alarm bells over the administration’s deeply troubling policy.
His talking filibuster was a rarity in the Senate, which nowadays allows its members to “filibuster” by refusing to end debate or proceed with a nomination unless a majority 60-vote threshold is met. The last time the kind of talking filibuster that Paul mounted happened was more than two years ago when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the Senate floor to stall a tax cut deal.
By using the procedural tactic the way it was intended, Paul pressed his case against the administration’s controversial drone strike policy, which potentially allows the government to target American citizens on U.S. soil in “extraordinary circumstances.”
This policy itself represents nothing short of an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person shall “be deprived of life … without due process of law,” and of American civil liberties in general. This is an issue that should unite both sides of the political spectrum.
Yet, it was Republicans—most notably the junior senator from Kentucky, and aided by others in the GOP including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee—who led the charge to get Attorney General Eric Holder to clarify whether the administration believed it had the power to use unmanned aerial drones within the U.S to kill its own citizens. With the exception of Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Senate Democrats simply sat on the sidelines with the intent of confirming Brennan without a fight and without even questioning the administration’s alarming policy. That they didn’t join in was appalling and frustrating to many on the left.
The road to Paul’s filibuster actually began late last month when he first queried the administration about the issue.
“When I asked the president, can you kill an American on American soil, it should have been an easy answer. It’s an easy question. It should have been a resounding, an unequivocal, ‘No,’ ” Paul said Wednesday. “The president’s response? He hasn’t killed anyone yet. We’re supposed to be comforted by that.”
At the time, Paul had threatened to filibuster Brennan’s nomination. He made it clear Wednesday that it wasn’t anything “personal,” and that the issue went beyond Brennan and was rooted in the principle of constitutional rights.
But Brennan’s history of working in the federal government is one worth exploring. He served in two counterterrorism jobs in George W. Bush’s administration—one in which he compiled intelligence reports from a variety of agencies, including the CIA, for the president’s morning briefings—and a stint as Obama’s national security adviser. This is also the same man who was among the top brass in the CIA while the Bush administration’s torture agenda hit its peak and who was also an architect of the current administration’s highly controversial targeted killings program.
However, as an editorial in The New York Times noted, during Brennan’s confirmation hearing in the Senate last month he “appeared to be one of the few people (apart from maybe Dick Cheney and some other die-hard right-wingers) who thinks there is some doubt still about whether the Bush administration tortured prisoners, hid its actions from Congress and misled everyone about whether coerced testimony provided valuable intelligence.”
The editorial goes on to argue that Brennan’s assurance that he would look into the torture matter as one of his “highest priorities” if he was confirmed as the CIA’s new director is problematic “because getting to the bottom of the Bush-era lawbreaking, mismanagement and incompetence in the interrogation and detention programs has not been a high priority for President Obama. In fact, it’s been no priority at all. From the day he took office in 2009, the president refused to spend any time looking at the gigantic blunders and abuses of power under his predecessor.”
Absent the answer he was looking for from the Obama administration over its drone strike policy, Paul made good on his previous threat and enacted the marathon filibuster of Brennan. Some, including Cruz, called what Paul did a real-life version of the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” To hit home the comparison, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk even came to the floor around 6:30 p.m. to deliver a thermos full of tea and an apple to Paul—the exact same sustenance brought to Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith during his filibuster in the movie.
While Paul didn’t last as long as Stewart’s Smith, he still managed to make it to the following day. After nearly 13 hours on the Senate floor, Paul finally ended the filibuster, telling his colleagues, “I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here.”
But unlike Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who ended up on the wrong side of history when his filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 lasted for more than 24 hours, Paul is on the right side of the issue.
And although John Brennan was confirmed by the Senate the following day, Paul’s fight to ensure American civil liberties will endure, he assured supporters in an op-ed he penned for The Washington Post on Friday.
“The Senate has the power to restrain the executive branch — and my filibuster was the beginning of the fight to restore a healthy balance of powers. The president still needs to definitively say that the United States will not kill American noncombatants. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment applies to all Americans; there are no exceptions,” he wrote.
To be clear, we are honoring Paul this week for what he has done regarding this one particular issue and irrespective of his other, sometimes extreme, political positions. As Van Jones, a onetime adviser to President Obama on green jobs, wrote in an editorial for CNN.com, Paul “does not believe the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government the right to protect individuals from racial discrimination in the marketplace. In fact, he once said businesses should be able to turn people away based on the color of their skin.”
Jones continued: “Also, please do not get me started on his votes against the Violence Against Women Act. Nor on his opposition to a woman’s right to make private medical decisions. Nor on his desire to cut Social Security and Medicare, while preserving tax loopholes for the wealthiest people ever born.”
Still, Jones commended Paul for standing up against Obama’s targeted killings program, writing that despite Paul being a “villain” on civil rights, “he was a hero this week on civil liberties.”
Even those who don’t agree with Paul on many issues found themselves giving the Republican senator kudos for challenging the president on this particular one.
The idea that a presidential administration could subvert the Bill of Rights and claim the authority to kill its own citizens within the country’s borders should concern everyone across the political spectrum. In enacting his filibuster, Paul may not have been able to prevent John Brennan’s confirmation, but he did draw attention to, and speak out against, a policy that tramples one of the pillars this nation was founded upon.
Because of the admirable stand he took on the Senate floor Wednesday in defense of the civil liberties of Americans everywhere, we honor Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as one of our Truthdiggers of the Week.