TW: drone strikes
This week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) engaged in the first talking filibuster in quite a long time over the nomination of John Brennan to CIA director (from his current position as Counter-Terrorism Adviser). Quite a few people have raised serious issues in response to yesterday’s events – one important thing to call attention to here is that Paul is showboating on the issue rather than shaping policy.
What precipitated this all was a simply letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Rand Paul who wanted to know what the Obama Administration considered to be the legality of a very specific time of drone warfare: against US citizens in the United States. Holder’s response is complex if brief – while he essentially claimed the President only had that power in emergencies (why is that argument so familiar?), it still prompted quite a bit shock from both more liberal and conservative voices in the US. In reply to that explanation, Paul filibustered, in an unusually public way, the nomination of John Brennan.
The problem with that response is that it’s not actually tailored to Brennan’s actual statements on the issue. While he is enthusiastically supportive of the US’s right to incorporate drone warfare into the larger war on terror and assorted invasions and occupations that has entailed, he’s also explicitly said that it should be understood as part of the military’s arsenal, not the intelligence community’s. He’s called for transparency. His departure from the Bush administration actually heralded the expansion of the drone program. In short, if he were installed in the position he’s been nominated to, he would reduce the CIA’s freedom to use of drone strikes. In a very real sense, blocking him from that position at best distracts from more substantive opposition to the secretive, CIA-driven use of drones that Paul has presented himself as focused on. At worst, it actually detracts from it.
In fact, this very public opposition to a specific potential use of drones says quite a bit about the form of Paul’s political approach. Unlike Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), he hasn’t been instrumental in actually challenging the policies that have permitted the secretive use of drones against people of varying nationalities in locations outside of the United States. Instead, he’s finding flaws in the Obama Administration’s wording with regards to strikes that they’ve essentially declared unacceptable.
Naturally enough, with the appearance of a second letter from Holder clarifying that no, seriously, drone strikes against US citizens in the US are exceptional circumstances that cannot be said to be part of the President’s explicit powers, and Paul has folded. His opposition was very vocal and very public, but it was also a flash in the pan.
(A visual depiction of senatorial filibusters from this exploration of the word’s etymology.)
What this wasn’t was a challenge to the core components of drone policy (primarily, that in its current form, it’s a legitimate use of violence against non-US-citizens). It wasn’t a demand for specific changes. It wasn’t an expansion of protections current afforded to US citizens in their own country, but a check that those privileges would be maintained. This wasn’t a revolutionary speech against power, but a speech making certain that a counterrevolution isn’t needed among conservatives.