Friday, March 8, 2013

Rand Paul: Making a Point

By Reginald Johnson

I don’t care what pundits like Larry O’Donnell and “mature” members of Congress may say, Rand Paul deserves a lot of credit for standing up for the Constitution the other day.

The libertarian senator from Kentucky may be way off base on a number of other issues, but performed a tremendous service by filibustering the John Brennan nomination as CIA director, and questioning the Obama drone program.

Brennan was eventually confirmed, hours after Paul’s marathon, in a vote largely along party lines.

But people were still buzzing later about Paul’s 13-hour traditional “talking filibuster,” which spotlighted the administration’s constitutional excesses with respect to the use of drones and the war on terrorism.

Paul rightly criticized the administration for giving signals that it might use killer drones to take out an American on U.S. soil, if suspected of terrorism. Such an act would be a blatant violation of the Constitution’s due process and habeas corpus guarantees.

In a letter sent to Paul recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the government did not rule out the use of lethal force against citizens in the U.S.

Holder declared that under undefined “extraordinary circumstances” the president could “authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”

Paul said the vote on confirming Brennan --- who was the architect of the drone program which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths --- should be held up until the administration issued a clear statement, in writing, saying it would not kill Americans on U.S. soil.

Already, drones were used to kill three Americans abroad. One of them was suspected of terrorist activities against the U.S. None of them were involved in combat against the United States.

Paul discussed the fact that government agencies have drawn up lists of “terrorist suspects” --- which have included the names of people who have expressed radical views, unpopular views or are dissidents. Such lists have been passed on to local law enforcement agencies recommending surveillance of those individuals, he said.

The senator said it is one thing for the government to target individuals who are taking up arms against the government, and another thing to target people who are simply critics of the government or affiliated with an unpopular group.

Paul demanded to know what standards were being used to draw up the watch lists, and what standards were being used to draw up kill lists, something Obama has directly been involved in.

“This filibuster is not so much about Brennan as it is about constitutional principles,” said Paul.

The lawmaker offered the Democrats a proposal that he would drop his filibuster and allow a vote to go ahead if they agreed to a non-binding “Sense of the Senate Resolution” which said “Use of drones to execute or target an American citizen on American soil who poses no imminent threat clearly violates the constitutional due process rights of citizens.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaking for the Democrats, conceded that many of the issues Paul raised were legitimate. Nonetheless, he turned the offer down.

The filibuster ended after midnight Thursday morning when Paul took a bathroom break. Later, there was some debate on the floor, with Sen. John McCain defending the drone program and saying the filibuster was out of place. McCain, who is becoming increasingly annoying, admonished the younger Paul “to calm down.”

That’s right, let’s all “calm down” about illegal drone strikes and assaults on the Constitution.

When the vote took place, it fell rather disgustingly along party lines. Almost all Republicans voted against Brennan, in most cases simply to oppose Obama, though some may share Paul’s liberterian views. Only three people on the left side of the aisle voted to oppose. They were Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, both Democrats, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders is one of the few real progressives on the Hill.

Then the wise, so-called liberal pundits like Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC weighed in with derision for Paul’s filibuster. O’Donnell called Paul “relentlessly ignorant” and deemed the filibuster a publicity stunt. The same network’s Ed Schultz said Paul was “grandstanding” and grabbing attention for a presidential run.

Though both commentators said the drone issue was an important one, Paul had somehow mishandled the matter. Neither one bothered to actually discuss the questions raised by Paul.

The Republican senator did score a victory Thursday morning, however, when Holder sent him a terse letter saying that the President does not have the authority to use a “weaponized drone” to kill an American on U.S. soil who is not engaged in combat.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK:Women for Peace and a strong critic both of the drone program and Brennan’s nomination, said Paul should have devoted time in his filibuster to talking about the terrible results of past drone strikes overseas, the massive loss of civilian life, and Brennan’s role in heading up the “nefarious program.”

Nonetheless, in a piece she authored for Common Dreams, she lauded Paul’s stand:

“While progressives have all sorts of reasons to dislike Rand Paul’s Tea Party, small government libertarian views, killer drones is one issue on which progressives should make common cause with Paul and his growing legions of supporters,” she wrote.

She continued, “After all, it’s not about the messenger but the message. And compared to the Democratic Senators who have, with few exceptions, remained either silent or support President Obama’s killer drones, Rand made a heroic stand. In gratitude, progressives should ‘Stand with Rand.’ “

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