Republican Senator Rand Paul's 13 hour filibuster this week produced no shortage of spectacle--and irony. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, one of the few Democratic voices questioning the secrecy and legal basis surrounding President Obama's policy of drone strikes against U.S. citizens engaged in terrorist efforts abroad, joined his colleague from across the aisle. But Paul's strange bedfellow of all was the GOP's number two man in the Senate, Texan John Cornyn. After all, when it came to defending the Bush administration's illegal program of domestic surveillance by the NSA, Cornyn argued "none of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead."
As the National Journal reported, Mitch McConnell and the GOP leadership team gave Paul a green light to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. As Paul's performance continued to draw attention, 13 Republican Senators eventually joined him on the floor. (Despite the fact that most GOP members of Congress support the President's authority to target and kill American terror suspects outside the U.S., RNC chairman Reince Priebus tweeted at 11:43 PM, "Attention all Republican US Senators -->Please go to the floor and help out @SenRandPaul #StandwithRand.") Among them was John Cornyn.
The former Texas Supreme Court chief justice didn't join Rand Paul just to tell his colleagues, "I admire his fortitude."
"This is no less important than our constitutional government itself that does not give sole power to the administration to make decisions but recognizes that the Congress is a co-equal branch of government, that indeed we have important oversight responsibilities. These are the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense and there isn't any more delicate and important matter than the limitations placed on the government when it comes to dealing with our own citizens."Of course, Senator Cornyn had a much different attitude when Republican George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office. When the New York Times revealed in December 2005 that President Bush in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorized the National Security Agency to engage in the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, Cornyn rushed to his defense. Introducing a talking point echoed by Republican leaders including Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Cornyn declared:
"None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead."As it turns out, Judge Cornyn helped lead the GOP effort to fend off charges surrounding the wrong-doing of the Bush administration. He called the investigation of Bush administration officials who outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame an effort to "smear the president" and later tried to block subpoenas for Karl Rove and Harriet Miers over the 2007 prosecutors purge by claiming Democrats were engaged in a "political witch hunt." Perhaps most important, Cornyn was among the chief apologists for President Bush's program of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that violated both U.S. and international law.
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In January 2009, Senator Cornyn tried to block the nomination of Eric Holder as Attorney General because President Obama did not share Cornyn's enthusiasm for waterboarding:
CORNYN: You would still refuse to condone aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding to get that information, which would, under my hypothetical, save perhaps tens of thousands of lives...That April, Cornyn made it clear he was "gunning" for Obama judicial nominee Dawn Johnsen. As the Daily Beast recalled, his obstruction was part of a GOP blackmail scheme to keep the infamous Bush administration torture memos secret:
HOLDER: I think your hypothetical assumes a premise that I'm not willing to concede.
CORNYN: I know you don't like my hypothetical.
HOLDER: No, the hypothetical's fine; the premise that underlies it I'm not willing to accept, and that is that waterboarding is the only way that I could get that information from those people.
CORNYN: Assume that it was.
HOLDER: [Laughs] Given the knowledge that I have about other techniques and what I've heard from retired admirals and generals and FBI agents, there are other ways in a timely fashion that you can get information out of people that is accurate and will produce useable intelligence. And so it's hard for me to accept or to answer your hypothetical without accepting your premise. And in fact, I don't think I can do that.
Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to "go nuclear" over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principle reason for the Obama administration's abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration's darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.(President Obama did release the torture memos later than month, but pledged there would be no prosecutions because "But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." Meanwhile, Johnsen's nomination was filibustered.)
While Cornyn opposed the publication of those Bush administration memos in 2009, he's insisting on the public release of the Obama DOJ's drone strategy memos now. During his portion of the Rand Paul filibuster, he repeated the same demand he made in February:
"The self-described 'most transparent Administration in history' owes more of an explanation to the American people on why they can be targeted for execution abroad than legal fluff packaged for and deliberately leaked to the media."Cornyn has wanted to get his hands on the Obama "kill list" memos for some time. As Mother Jones reported last July, he proposed an amendment mandating Obama provide the memos to several Congressional committees:
"We're not mere supplicants to the executive branch, we are a coequal branch of government," Cornyn said during discussion of his amendment in the Senate committee hearing last week. "So it is insufficient to say pretty please, Mr. President, pretty please, Mr. Attorney General, will you please tell us the legal authority by which you claim the authority to kill American citizens abroad?" (Cornyn also noted that just because he wants to see the memo doesn't mean he'd necessarily disagree with its contents.)As Rand Paul new BFF (best filibuster friend) ironically put it, "the double standard is pretty shocking."