Rand Paul filibuster shakes Washington, gets win

Published: Thursday, March 7 2013 10:10 p.m. MST

The dispute between Paul and Holder began over a controversial Justice Department white paper leaked in early February that left civil libertarians flustered as to the rules on how lethal force might be used against American citizens.

Ed Reinke, AP

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After holding the Senate floor for 13 hours in a rare old-fashioned filibuster on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ken., got what he wanted: a clear statement from Attorney General Eric Holder that drones could not legally be used to kill Americans not engaged in combat and on American soil.

"I've kind of won my battle," Paul told The Washington Post after getting Holder’s letter on Thursday, which ended Paul's filibuster of John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA.

The Wall Street Journal editors were less impressed, urging Paul to “calm down” and calling the filibuster a “political stunt” aimed to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, also a Republican, was one of handful of senators who actively backed Paul’s filibuster. Others included one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Republican tea party favorites Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.

And late in the day Paul got a big push from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., who said he would "congratulate my colleague from Kentucky for this extraordinary effort.”

Thursday afternoon, with the filibuster settled and Brennan confirmed at the CIA, Lee got on the phone with the Deseret News, calling Paul’s filibuster a “significant victory.”

The dispute between Paul and Holder began over a controversial Justice Department white paper leaked in early February that left civil libertarians flustered as to the rules on how lethal force might be used against American citizens.

As part of Brennan’s confirmation process, Paul pressed Brennan repeatedly for clarification on key points, including whether he believed the executive branch had authority to order an extrajudicial killing of an American citizen on American soil.

The subsequent response from Holder, critics argued, only raised further questions.

"The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront," Holder wrote.

"It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States."

Paul’s stated objective with the filibuster was to force the administration to clarify Holder’s hypothetical musing.

On Friday morning, Holder responded to Paul’s filibuster with a three sentence letter. “It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question,” Holder wrote. “'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.”

The Wall Street Journal editors, however, insisted the law was always clear on this point, however muddled the attorney general may have left it.

“The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else,” the editorial read. “What it can do under the laws of war is target an 'enemy combatant' anywhere at anytime, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant. The President can designate such a combatant if he belongs to an entity — a government, say, or a terrorist network like al Qaeda — that has taken up arms against the United States as part of an internationally recognized armed conflict.”

Lee was puzzled, given the brevity and simplicity of Holder's letter on Thursday, that there was so much resistance to making the statement.

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