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Why Rand Paul's Filibuster Matters

The Republican senator asked important questions about executive power to kill American citizens without trial

Sen. Rand Paul speaking on the floor of the Senate in Washington.
AP Photo/Senate Television
March 7, 2013 2:43 PM ET

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) held the Senate floor for 12 straight hours this week, from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning, in an attempt to block the nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA. But the junior senator from Kentucky had a much deeper purpose – namely, seeking an answer to what he saw as a fairly straight-forward question: Can the president order the extra-judicial killing of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil in a non-battlefield context?

Though the filibuster is over, the Obama administration still has yet to clearly and directly answer that question. Paul should be applauded for this action, and every Senate Democrat except Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – who joined in the filibuster – should be ashamed. The absence of progressive voices was especially noticeable toward the end of the talking marathon, as conservatives like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) were clearly only there to take partisan pot shots at the administration about totally unrelated things like deficit reduction.

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Earlier in the week, Attorney General Eric Holder had provided Paul with a letter that responded to his question about killing U.S. citizens on U.S. soil in condescending terms:

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

Holder went on to say that the chief executive could order lethal force against a U.S. citizen if he or she was, for instance, flying one of the planes used in the 9/11 attacks – an argument that Paul called a "red herring." Paul made clear that he believes the president does have the constitutional authority to kill a bazooka-wielding enemy charging the Capitol building – in other words, an actual, imminent threat. That, he insisted, was not the issue at hand. The issue rather was whether the president could authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen at, say, a cafe in San Francisco if the president unilaterally deemed that person posed a sufficient threat.

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The core issue of this filibuster – what made it important – is that it targeted the very core of a central premise held in common by both the Bush and Obama administrations: We're keeping you safe, but we can't tell you how. Obama has become the "trust me" president, a leader whose apparent benevolence has allowed him to tap into and expand the creeping authoritarian mindset that has become a greater and greater element of U.S. politics post-9/11. Democrats under Bush were alternately happy to acquiesce to his power grabs and then eager to feign opposition when he was weak. But to think that the Democrats are the party of restrained executive power is a mistake, as this filibuster, not to mention the last five years at least, made clear. (It is also a mistake to think that offering praise of Rand Paul in this limited instance is to offer praise of him generally – which, in this writer's case, it is not.)

Whether or not Obama is a good person, or uses the powers he has claimed in a narrow way, is not the issue. What will future presidents do with this power? As blogger Steve Vladeck writes, "however careful [the Obama administration] has actually been in selecting targets and trying to minimize both false positives and collateral damage, there comes a point where the public has a right to not just take its word for it." This point is so obvious it shouldn't even need to be said, though it clearly does. That large swaths of the citizenry are willing to vest powers in an executive simply because they trust the person currently holding that office – despite the George W. Bush years being so fresh in our collective memory – is a sad commentary on just how effective a decade-plus of fear-mongering has been.

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