How Drones Are Turning Politics in Washington Topsy Turvy
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It's become accepted wisdom that Washington has become pathologically polarized and partisan, with every new debate inevitably breaking down along party lines. That's why it was so remarkable last week when Rand Paul's old-fashioned talking filibuster scrambled the even more old-fashioned right-vs.-left way of looking at the world. The Paul-provoked debate on the confirmation of John Brennan to head the CIA in turn provoked a wider and critical debate about the use of drones -- a debate that needs to continue well beyond Brennan's confirmation.
It's an issue Brennan has been heavily involved with. In February, Paul had sent Brennan a letter asking: "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?"
A few weeks later, Attorney General Holder replied with a letter that stated:
The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. 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.
And so Paul took to the floor to mount the first talking filibuster since 2010, when Bernie Sanders mounted one against the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
"When I asked the president, 'Can you kill an American on American soil,' it should have been an easy answer," said Paul. He continued:
It's an easy question. It should have been a resounding an unequivocal, "No." The president's response? He hasn't killed anyone yet. We're supposed to be comforted by that. The president says, "I haven't killed anyone yet." He goes on to say, "And I have no intention of killing Americans. But I might." Is that enough? Are we satisfied by that?
Democrat Ron Wyden soon joined the filibuster. "The executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny because that's not how American democracy works," said Wyden. "That's not what our system is about."
On the other side of the aisle, Lindsey Graham called the idea of the U.S. using drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil "ridiculous" and said the controversy was the result of "paranoia between the libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified," while his frequent ally John McCain, went the other way, calling Paul and fellow filibusterers "wacko birds" (which sounds like a good name for a cereal). Right vs. left was suddenly scrambled.
Not surprisingly, the poles of the debate were only partially dislodged from party affiliation, as Wyden was the only Democrat to join Paul -- though Democrats Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, along with Independent Bernie Sanders, did ultimately vote against Brennan. It's hard to imagine that if an attorney general for President Bush had said the same thing as Holder did that this many Democrats would have remained silent. Nor, of course, did this many Republicans speak out for civil liberties when the president asserting his right to limit them had an (R) by his name.
But even if the terms of the debate on drones were only partially rearranged, it was still a step in the right direction. The scrambling of the debate continued at least to week's end, as I found out when I appeared onReal Time. My old friend Bill Maher agreed that drones were overused, but then went on: