Late last week, as a rare March blizzard began to take our nation’s capital by storm, an ophthalmologist from Kentucky directed all eyes to C-Span, where he was busy making history. The ophthalmologist, Senator Rand Paul, managed to remain standing for nearly 13 hours in protest over President Obama’s choice to head the CIA in his second administration. While Paul admitted the inevitable futility of the filibuster, he remained firm in his positing of a single, previously unanswered question: “Does the President have the authority to use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” We commend the senator for raising the alarm on this important aspect of civil liberty, and we fault the administration for its intransigence in clarifying its own policies.
While John O. Brennan faced little trouble in his confirmation as Director of the CIA the day after Paul’s showmanship, Senator Paul did ultimately score a victory for his cause. Throughout his marathon of a speech, Paul read passages from previous letters sent to him by the attorney general addressing his primary query. The cavalier and wholly unsatisfying answer was, namely, that the question is laughable in and of itself—the president has never had to ponder targeting an American on U.S. soil. Laudably, Paul was unhappy with this response and stood his ground until he could get an unambiguous “yes” or “no” from the Justice Department. While he ultimately capitulated before such a memorandum arrived, the next day Attorney General Eric Holder backtracked from his previous position that American citizens at home could be targeted in “extraordinary circumstances.” His new, clarified stance is that “the answer to [Senator Paul’s] question is no.”
This is a victory not only for the senator from Kentucky’s political ambitions, but also for the good of the American people at large. The Obama administration has been dangerously continuing the unsalutary covertness of the Bush era national security team, which initiated the drone program a decade ago. Last year’s revelation that the president makes the final and unchecked decision on targeting members of his secret “kill list” calls into question how seriously our nation’s leaders take the Fifth Amendment. While the Bush years yielded many vociferous activists opposed to warrant-less wiretapping and other iniquities, the Obama administration has yet to face the same critics (largely because they make up a component of his political base). We take pride in Senator Paul’s championing of the causes of civil liberties and government accountability, and we call on more of our nation’s leaders to join him on this issue. As Democratic Senator Ron Wyden proved during the epic filibuster, seeking clarity on life-or-death policy should not manifest into a partisan issue.
Patrick Henry once said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Before Senator Paul’s bit of political theatre, it was not just the transactions of our rulers but also the possible scope of such transactions that had been blatantly concealed. Such is not the mark of good governance. While we are glad that Paul’s question has finally been granted a serious reply, we urge the administration to remember this moment in future situations. Likewise, we call on all of our nation’s leaders to be as brave as Senator Paul. When the government shrouds the nature of its business, it is up to political figures to call for transparency and openness.