Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Wednesday began a filibuster of President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, saying he would continue speaking from the floor of the Senate until he had guarantees that U.S. policy on the use of drones would not be applied to Americans at home.
A rumored presidential hopeful in 2016, Paul began speaking at 11:47 a.m. and continued into the early evening. He was successful in at least delaying the vote on John Brennan’s nomination until Thursday or possibly later.
“I don’t rise to oppose John Brennan’s nomination simply for the person,” he said. “I rise today for the principle.”
Paul received help from several other Senate Republicans, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
The lawmakers said they had not gotten satisfactory answers from the White House addressing their concerns about the legality of domestic drone strikes. They cited a hypothetical situation involving an innocent terrorist suspect at a San Francisco restaurant, and whether a drone attack could be justified without due process.
“That an American could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination,” Paul said. “It is something that should not and cannot be tolerated in our country.”
Experts on drone policy said that questions raised by Paul and his allies displayed a misunderstanding, or a less than thorough understanding, of the president’s drone policy.
“Drones are the new black helicopters,” said Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution national security expert who has testified before Congress on the issue of targeted killings, Paul’s point of concern.
Black helicopters were the iconic symbol of a strain of political paranoia that emerged in the 1990s among some far right groups that feared federal law enforcement was using black helicopters to target domestic enemies.
In the San Francisco example, Wittes said that the legal justification only applies to high-ranking terrorists and can be used when there is no chance of other remedy, such as arrest.
While Wittes said Obama probably cannot make a blanket statement that lethal drone strikes would not be made against those on American soil, he said that the instances where circumstances would make that such strikes legal would be extremely rare.
Noting the “entirely hypothetical” nature of the concern, Attorney General Eric Holder told Paul in a letter that “the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001.”
But on the Senate floor, Paul said his concern involves a key legal protection, “one that as Americans we fought long and hard for, and to give up on that principle, to give up on the Bill of Rights, to give up on the Fifth Amendment protection that says no person shall be held without due process, that no person shall be held for a capital offense without being indicted.”
Paul began just before noon, sounding as if he was prepared for a long siege
“I rise to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA,” he said. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without being found to be guilty by a court.”
The longest filibuster in Senate history was by Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spent 24 hours and 18 minutes opposing a 1957 civil rights bill.
Unlike some of the lengthier filibusters in Senate history, Paul’s was not a solo affair. About three hours into his filibuster, Paul yielded to questions from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He also took lengthy questions from Cruz and Moran, as well as Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Rubio jokingly suggested that Paul should keep a bottle of water nearby. While delivering a nationally televised Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a parched Rubio paused to take a sip of water, and the news clip became a brief Internet sensation.