“Epic,” “inspirational,” and “historic” are three words that best describe what I watched transpire on the floor of the United States Senate yesterday. At 11:47am, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) began his filibuster of John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, largely due to the lack of transparency from the Obama Administration on its drone program — specifically the targeted killing of Americans inside the borders of the United States.
The reasons that this gained so much interest was because it was an actual filibuster. This wasn’t a situation where Brennan couldn’t get 60 votes for cloture. Sen. Paul performed an old school filibuster, something that has become all too rare.
There was also another point that made this filibuster unique — Sen. Paul, along with several of his colleagues, spent nearly 13 hours talking substantive policy. There was no reading from a phone book or any other manner of time-buying tricks. Sen. Paul and others spent their time relaying a very pointed message about the Constitution, limits on executive power, and civil liberties.
For nearly 13 hours, Sen. Paul gave one of the most eloquent defenses of the Constitution that I’ve ever witnessed. He was joined at various times by Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), both of whom spoke at length on the constitutional concerns over the policy.
Sen. Paul made it clear that the filibuster had nothing to do with President Obama or even Brennan. “I rise today for the principle,” said Sen. Paul. “The principle is one that as Americans we have 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 that no person shall be held without due process, that no person shall be held for a capital offense without being indicted.”
He added, “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?” Sen. Paul asked. “Are we so complacent with our rights that we would allow a President to say he might kill Americans? But he will judge the circumstances, he will be the sole arbiter, he will be the sole decider, he will be the executioner in chief if he sees fit.”
Sen. Paul spoke directly to those who believe that President Obama can be trusted with this bizarre, newfound power.
“[S]ome would say he would never do this. Many people give the President the - you know, they give him consideration, they say he’s a good man,” noted Sen. Paul. “I’m not arguing he’s not. What I’m arguing is that the law is there and set in place for the day when angels don’t rule government. Madison said that the restraint on government was because government will not always be run by angels.”
And Sen. Paul also made it abundantly clear that his concerns aren’t partisan in nature. “This has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, Sen. Paul stated. “Were this a Republican President, I’d be here saying exactly the same thing. No one person, no one politician should be allowed to judge the guilt, to charge an individual, to judge the guilt of an individual and to execute an individual. It goes against everything that we fundamentally believe in our country.”
Sen. Lee was the first of Sen. Paul’s colleagues to join in the filibuster. Because Senate rules prevent the member who using the procedural tactic from yielding the floor, Sen. Paul recognized Sen. Lee for questions and comments. Sen. Lee, who was elected in 2010, questioned the definition of an “imminent threat” by a suspected terrorist, per the recent white paper from the Department of Justice making the case for the targeted killing of American citizens.
“[W]e’re told in black and white right here in this white paper that this condition, that of imminence, does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” said Lee. “That begs the question, what then is the standard? Who then makes this determination? Presumably it’s the President of the United States. Perhaps it’s others. Reporting up in the chain of command to the President of the United States.”
Lee asked several more questions dealing with this point. “But if actual imminence isn’t required as part of this ostensibly imminent standard, what then is the standard? Is there any at all? And if there is a standard, why is it so broad that you could drive a 747 right through it?” Lee continued. “And if that’s the case, how is that compatible with time-horned notions of due process, those notions deeply embedded in our founding documents, those notions that we understand come from God and cannot be revoked by any government.”
Sen. Cruz took a moment to praise Sen. Paul’s efforts, calling him a “modern ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington.’” He added, “[M]y only regret is that there are not 99 of your colleagues here today standing with you in defense of the most fundamental principles in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, namely that each of us is endowed with certain unalienable rights by our Creator and that first among them is life, the right to life and the right not to have life arbitrarily extinguished by our government without due process of law.”
Speaking to one of the the issues at hand — executive power — Sen. Cruz noted that President Obama isn’t a monarch. “I would suggest the genesis of our Constitution is found in the notion that the President is not a king, that we are not ruled by a monarchy, and that no man or woman is above the law,” Sen. Cruz said. “And accordingly, no man or woman may determine the applicability to himself or herself. For that reason, the framers of our Constitution won not one but two revolutions. The first revolution they won was a bloody battle for our independence from King George. And a great many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we might enjoy the freedom we do today.”
“But the far more important war they won was the war of ideas, where for millennia, men and women had been told that rights come from kings and queens and are given by grace to be taken away at the whim of the monarch,” Sen. Cruz added. “And what our framers concluded instead is that our rights don’t come from any king or queen or President, they come from God almighty and sovereignty does not originate from the monarch or the President, it originates from we the people.”
Sen. Cruz made it clear that he didn’t buy the “trust us” approach of the Obama Administration, noting that it is fundamentally inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. Sen. Paul agreed, explaining that “[t]his debate is about fundamental rights that we — that most of us or many of us believe that we derive from our Creator and it’s important we not give up on these, that we not allow a majority vote or one branch of the government to say we’ve now decided you don’t get all of these rights anymore.”
“Our founders really wanted to make it difficult to change things, to take away our rights. And so this is an important battle and one in which I think we should engage because the President needs to be more forthcoming,” Sen. Paul explained. “The President needs to let us know what his plans are. If he’s going to overrule the Fifth Amendment and if the Attorney General’s going to decide when the Fifth Amendment applies, that’s a pretty important distinction and change from the history of our country.”
All of the quotes above came from the first four hours of the filibuster, folks. There were many other exchanges, and many more members of the chamber got involved in the issue. Even if they were supportive of Brennan’s nomination, they were respectful of Sen. Paul’s effort.
Sen. Paul obviously looked tired at times. His voice cracked several times during his strong stand. He took a couple of breaks, and even snacked on a Snickers bar while continuing his defense of the constitutionally-protected right of due process. At one point, it seemed like Sen. Paul was ready to stand down, introducing a resolution to denounce the targeted killing of American citizens.
That resolution simply stated:
Resolved, that it is the Sense of the Senate that:
- The use of drones to execute, or to target, American citizens on American soil who pose no imminent threat clearly violates the Constitutional right to due process of citizens.
- The American people deserve a clear, concise, and unequivocal public statement from the President of the United States that contains detailed legal reasoning, including but not limited to the balance between national security and due process, limits of executive power and distinction between treatment of citizens and non-citizens within and outside the borders of the United States, the use of lethal force against American citizens, and the use of drones in the application of lethal force within United States territory.
That was an entirely reasonable resolution, but unfortunately, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) objected, thus blocking it from moving forward. Sen. Durbin, who last night practically endorsed every argument the Bush Administration ever made to undermine the Constitution, instead offered Sen. Paul a committee hearing on the issue, where he could testify about the use of drones to target American citizens on American soil. It seemed as though this gave Sen. Paul a second wind and he continued on for several more hours.
But shortly before the 13-hour mark, Sen. Paul called it quits, putting an end to day that should inspire many new patriots and spark a much needed debate about the Bill of Rights and limits on executive power.
While the Tea Party class in the Senate has been much maligned by Democrats and the rest of the political left — most of whom were formerly civil libertarians — it was Sens. Paul, Lee, and Cruz who were standing for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It was these three Tea Party Senators who were opposing the idea of a government that kill its own citizens inside its own borders.