I had been trying for more than a week to get a straight answer on whether or not the Obama administration believed it had the authority to use drones to target and kill American citizens on American soil – without due process.The letter in which Paul asked his question is here and Holder's response is here. Holder did effectively say yes, but only in the context of preventing an imminent attack such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
And after receiving a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder claiming they DO have that authority, I could no longer sit silently at my desk in the U.S. Senate.
So I stood for thirteen-straight hours to send a message to the Obama administration, I will do everything in my power to fight their attempts to ignore the Constitution!
But while Rand Paul claims in his letter to have been horrified by that answer, yesterday on Fox News, Paul actually took Holder's position. "I've never argued that the president doesn't have the right to make immediate decisions to protect our country from attack when it's an imminent attack like that [that being 9/11], F-16s were scrambling, I have no opposition to that." That's exactly Holder's position, but despite agreeing with it on Fox, in his fundraising letter, Paul said he could "no longer sit silently" after hearing it.
To be fair to Paul, the mere fact that a fundraising letter misrepresented the reason for his filibuster doesn't necessarily mean the filibuster was pointless self-aggrandizement. But as I argue below the fold, I do believe that by deciding to focus his filibuster on the question of whether the president has the right to order a death robot strike against a noncombatant citizen on U.S. soil turned it into a political circus instead of a serious effort to address questions about domestic drone usage.
Unlike in his letter, Paul told Fox viewers that while he agreed with the answer Holder had given him, he had launched his filibuster because Holder was refusing to answer the question that he was asking. "Attorney General Holder answered a question we weren't asking," Paul said. "We're talking about targeted strikes against individuals. We're talking about John Smith who's eating in a cafe in Seattle who also happens to be emailing a cousin of his who lives in the Middle East."
It would be very disturbing indeed if the administration were unwilling to say it didn't have the authority to kill people in coffee shops. But that's not the question that Paul originally posed: "Do you believe that the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without trial?"
Despite Paul's claim to the contrary, nothing in that question limits its scope to noncombatants. But, as it turns out, shortly before Paul began his filibuster, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) had asked Holder the question Paul claimed to be interested in, and after a painful back and forth, Holder said he believed it would be unconstitutional for the president to order a lethal attack on a noncombatant on U.S. soil.
Initially, Holder said he believed such an attack would be "inappropriate," but when pressed by Cruz to specifically take a position on constitutionality, he said that he believed it would not be constitutional. Cruz—speaking before Paul launched his filibuster—highlighted Holder's answer:
“After much gymnastics, I am glad to hear that it is the opinion of the Department of Justice that it would be unconstitutional to kill a US citizen on US soil if that individual did not post an imminent threat,” Cruz said. “That statement has not been easily forthcoming.”But even though Paul agreed with Holder's answer to the question he originally asked, and even though Holder had already answered the question that he hadn't asked, Paul took to the Senate floor to demand the answer that had already been given all over again. Nonetheless, in his fundraising letter, Paul declared victory:
Just hours ago, I received a letter from Attorney General Holder declaring the President DOES NOT have the authority to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil.Indeed he did receive a letter, but what it said was more nuanced than that.
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.Obviously, the four key words there are "not engaged in combat." Take those four words out, and Holder's answer turns into a limited yes, a position that Rand Paul agrees with and claims to have "never argued" against.
At least so far, Rand Paul has managed to turn his filibuster into quite the success, but by focusing it so narrowly on a question that had already been answered—and by agreeing with the the administration's position on the question that he claimed to have been initially troubled by—Paul's filibuster seems to have been more about advancing his political career than actually addressing any of the serious questions about drone policy.