Rand Paul’s filibuster and the conversation moving forward

Yesterday Rand Paul spent thirteen hours filibustering John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA.  The proceeding was, in many ways, surreal — the first talking filibuster since Bernie Sanders’ effort in 2010, a moment of schadenfreude for some bitter conservatives, and a rare example of how to truly change (however temporarily) the dialogue in Washington. For what it’s worth I happened to have agreed with Rand’s specific point of contention; whether the adminstration was claiming that it had the authority to kill Americans who are not engaged in combat on American soil with a weaponized drone. This is a good question that deserved an answer.

Well, Paul got his response:

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 2.02.40 PMThe text of the letter, from Attorney General Eric Holder, reads

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” Holder wrote. “The answer to that question is no.”

Well, that settles that, doesn’t it?

Of course not. It was a good question, but not the most important question stemming from the white paper that explained the president’s authority on targeted killings; that lies with the administration’s expansive definition of what constitutes an “imminent threat.” Holder assures that the president cannot kill Americans “not engaged in combat,” but the legal basis of a targeted kill list found in the white paper doesn’t make that distinction, and the question of how imminence is determined is essentially “Whichever way we define the term.” That’s unacceptable, period, irrespective of the whether the killing is done via drones now or by Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.

To the extent that this is relatively important in the grand scheme of things is due to it’s being an extension of the broader issue involving opaque executive privilege on warfare. Now that’s a much bigger topic than I have the time to get into here, but I also wanted to not that this is not even a settlement of how we will structure future drone usage in the United States, as Alec MacGillis (timely) reports in The New Republic;

Scoff all you want, but here’s the thing: The prospect of the government or local law enforcement using armed drones to target people on American soil was discussed as a very real issue at a recent gathering of the drone lobby that I attended in Newport News, Virginia, the subject of a piece in the current issue of the magazine. The two-day gathering, organized by the Hampton Roads chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (aka the drone lobby), was focused on the vast opportunities and equally big challenges of the civilian market for drones—for crop monitoring, package delivery, police search and rescue efforts, you name it.

These are all very important questions that deserve some amount of time and attention from our society and its polity. For that I’m grateful for Paul’s actions yesterday (even though his other civil rights positions are…not good). This is one instance where discourse stemming from Washington can provide an ideal opportunity for a broader conversation on norms keeping pace with technology. I hope that it’s not an opportunity lost.


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