Rand Paul goes to Washington

Senator Rand Paul in 2011
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Senator Rand Paul did something the Senate rarely sees: actually talked at length about a matter of fundamental principle. He ended his filibuster of the confirmation of John Brennan as Director of Central Intelligence at 12:40 a.m. Today. But its effects will linger.

The Rand Paul filibuster begins

At 11:45 a.m. March 7, 2013, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) stood for recognition, according to Jim Michaels at USA Today. Then he began:

I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. 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.

And what threatens the Constitution? Drone warfare, and the hint that the Barack Obama administration might wage it against American citizens on American soil.

James Stewart would understand what Rand Paul did and why.

Col. James Stewart USAAF. Photo: United States Air Force

Actor (later Brigadier General) James Stewart, in Mister Smith Goes to Washington, portrayed a Senator who made a desperate filibuster to stop the Senate from expelling him. He summed up the rules of the Senate this way:

If I yield only for a question or a point of order or personal privilege, I can hold this floor almost until doomsday!

A Senator must also stand up the whole time.

Rand Paul had help. Fifteen Senators “spelled” him by:

  • Asking him to yield for a question, and
  • Asking long-winded questions that supported his main point.

Different Senators even brought him food and drink. One, Ted Cruz (R-TX), read aloud several “tweets” from Twitter, carrying the hashtag #StandWithPaul.

Rand Paul held the floor for 12 hours and 52 minutes. Catalina Camia, also of USA Today, clocks that as the ninth longest filibuster in the history of the Senate.

Rand Paul took to the floor after he asked Attorney General Eric Holder in writing to clarify American policy on drone warfare. Paul wanted to know: would an American citizen, on American soil, be a target of a drone strike? And Holder hemmed and hawed.

Rand Paul dwelt on the case of Actress Jane Fonda. He recalled the footage of her sitting in the gunner’s seat of a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. That footage played on all three American TV networks at the time. It also made her box-office poison for a few years.

I am not a fan of Jane Fonda. But I’m not in a hurry to put her on a drone kill list, either!

He was making the same point CNAV recently made. Totalitarians usually aim first at those members of their societies that have the least sympathy from the people. Sometimes they aim first at those who incur the people’s wrath. The Rev. Martin Neimoller once showed that totalitarians never stop there.

How the Senate took it

Senator Rand Paul in 2011

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Photo: United States Senate

Aside from the fifteen Senators who “spelled” Rand Paul, the rest of the Senate seemed to love it. Even Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) had a few good words, according to Ms. Camia:

One thing I learned from my own experience with talking filibusters: To succeed, you need strong convictions but also a strong bladder. Senator Paul has both.

But Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) did not agree. Mike McAuliff at The Huffington Post quoted some of McCain’s remarks.

I watched some of that, quote, debate, unquote, yesterday. I saw colleagues who know better come to the floor and voice some of this same concern, which is totally unfounded. I must say that the use of Jane Fonda’s name does evoke certain memories with me, and I must say that she is not my favorite American. But I also believe that, as odious as it was, Ms. Fonda acted within her constitutional rights, and to somehow say that someone who disagrees with American policy – and even may demonstrate against it – is somehow a member of an organization which makes that individual an enemy combatant is simply false. It is simply false.

McCain even accused Rand Paul of “doing a disservice to the American people” by lending credence to such an idea.

The Wall Street Journal also thundered against Rand Paul. Luke Johnson of The Huffington Post summed it up. (The WSJ reserves this content to paying subscribers.)

Calm down, Senator. Mr. Holder is right, even if he doesn’t explain the law very well. The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an “enemy combatant” anywhere at anytime, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant.

Answer me this, ye worthies at the WSJ. Who decides that someone is an enemy combatant? The US Constitution does define treason as “levying war against” one’s country. But even accused traitors deserve a trial, and the Constitution says that, too.

Rand Paul’s objection was never to random killings of US citizens, but to arbitrary killings. No one suggests or suggested (yet!) that Barack Obama, or anyone else, will sit before a monitor, laughing like a maniac, and point to this person, or that person, on the screen, and say, “Kill him.” Nor that any drone will fire a missile without a target set, to hit whatever gets in its way. Now that would be a random killing. But people do have good reason to fear that this President will decide, on his own, to kill someone. The fancy Latin word for this is proscription. William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar IV.i. 1-6) showed beautifully how this works (Clip One, Go!):

MARK ANTONY: These many, then, shall die. Their names are prick’d.

GAIUS OCTAVIUS: Your brother, too, must die. Consent you, Lepidus?


OCTAVIUS: Prick him down, Antony.

LEPIDUS: Upon condition Publius shall not live,

Who is your sister’s son, Mark Antony.

ANTONY: He shall not live. Look, with a spot I damn him.

We do not proscribe our fellow citizens! Not in this Constitutional republic. Not yet.

The Heritage Foundation understands this issue. They condemned the idea of using killer drones in US airspace. And last night they supported the Rand Paul filibuster. They also praised Rand Paul and his fellow Senators “for defending the Constitution and standing up for due process.”