Sen. Rand Paul's nearly 13-hour filibuster on Wednesday was an example of the proper use of that parliamentary procedure. He drew attention to his arguments and concerns, got Washington and much of the nation to talk about them, and even got a sought-after response and clarification from the White House — sort of.
This would not have been the case had he filibustered over a trivial or unimportant matter. But his half-day speaking marathon concerned the administration's policy on drone strikes, something that won him support along a spectrum of concerned civil libertarians that stretched from the far right to the ACLU. Paul was not out to scuttle the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, although that was the focus of his maneuver. He was out to raise awareness about an issue of critical importance.
Ultimately, a day later, the administration issued a response that said the president does not have authority to use unmanned drone aircraft to kill American citizens on United States. soil if they are not engaged in combat. That was not the clear answer for which civil libertarians had hoped. Nor did it answer many of the larger questions concerning the use of this new and potentially frightening technology.
We wish Paul's talk-a-thon had centered on these, instead. What are the rules of engagement for drones? Who orders their use? Must they be confined to a field of battle, or might they be used within nations with which the U.S. is not in combat?
The answers to these questions could affect not only the conduct of this and future administrations, but set the tone for international law. This is new territory in war conduct. Unlike nuclear weapons, drones are inexpensive. Before long, they will be used by enemies of the U.S. and possibly terrorist organizations. The day likely will come when the United Nations will attempt to draft international treaties governing their use. Already, local police departments are using them for surveillance. Now is the time for the American president to openly discuss these issues and take a leadership role.
We understand President Barack Obama's reluctance. With the safety and protection of the U.S. on his shoulders, his main concern lies in countering threats and neutralizing enemies by any means possible. But the long-term implications of his actions will affect national security as well as determine how well basic constitutional liberties are protected. U.S. citizens are entitled to due process and a trial. Even local police departments need a warrant, signed by a judge, before invading a home or arresting a suspect, with more drastic action requiring an imminent threat. The administration should not simply be able to draw up a list of names of citizens, then carry out their assassinations. This must remain true no matter how much the world may have changed in recent years.
Ideally, Obama should propose a set of rules for Congress to debate, amend and codify. This is not a partisan issue. Some prominent Republicans, including former presidential candidate John McCain, were critical of the filibuster. We have no doubt that a Republican president would seek to use drones much as the current administration does. But they should not be allowed to do so without providing thorough answers to the meatier, long-term questions.
Thanks to Paul's filibuster, that may happen.