Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster has gotten results, in the form of a new letter from Attorney General Eric Holder that answers Paul’s question. It is a rather brief missive:
Dear Senator Paul:
It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional 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.
Eric H. Holder, Jr.
The key nuance there is “not engaged in combat.” Holder had told Paul in a previous letter that he could imagine an “extraordinary circumstance” in which it would be legal for the President to use lethal force within the United States in the face of the threat of a “catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7th, 1941, and September 11th, 2001.”
As Adam Serwer points out, Paul didn’t appear to object during his filibuster to a scenario in which lethal force would used against Americans who are in the process of carrying out a terrorist attack in this country. “Nobody questions if planes are flying towards the Twin Towers whether they can be repulsed by the military,” Paul said. “Nobody questions whether a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled.” Rather, Paul asked whether an Arab American “citing in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Michigan” who is suspected of ties to terrorism could be targeted with assassination.
Holder has now answered that question: No. Now, it’s not implausible to read Holder’s previous letter — the one that launched Paul’s 13-hour filibuster — as ruling out the scenario Paul outlined. But Paul — and many others — apparently didn’t think the previous letter spelled this out with sufficient clarity. Now Paul’s question has been definitively answered.
At any rate, I’m glad this filibuster happened. Whatever the specifics of Paul’s speech, it’s good that pubic attention was focused, however briefly, on Obama’s drone policies and the legal rationale for his targeted killing program. It’s also good that we were treated to the sight of a real filibuster — a reminder that the silent GOP filibustering that has rendered the Senate dysfunctional for years has become internalized by most political observers as perfectly ordinary, even though it actually represents a serious breakdown in majority rule.
Sources tell CNN’s Dana Bash that the final vote on John Brennan as CIA chief is set to happen this afternoon. This chapter in the drama is at an end, but the need for more transparency and Congressional oversight on Obama’s drone and targeted killing programs remains.