Rand Paul’s Filibuster Gives Civil Liberties A Rare Washington Moment

Where left and right meet. Paul on drones.

Rand Paul appears on a television screen in an office at the U.S. Capitol as he filibusters on the Senate floor. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s hours-long, multi-senator filibuster of John Brennan’s CIA director nomination has accomplished a rare feat: Questions about targeted killing and the drone program have vaulted from the fringes to the forefront of Washington conversation, and it’s lasted nearly an entire day.

Civil libertarians have, finally, arrived.

“You would hope that the question of whether the president can on his own authority kill citizens in the U.S. would have come to the forefront as soon as it was floated,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. “But it seems like it took this particular circumstance to get people talking about it.”

Paul began his filibuster at 11:47 a.m. with the promise that “I will speak until I can no longer speak.” Over the course of the afternoon, seven other Republican senators and one Democrat, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, have joined in the filibuster that has revolved around constitutional debate over whether or not the administration can use its authority to turn drones on U.S. citizens within U.S. territory.

Paul has name-checked a number of writers in the progressive libertarian space including Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, Firedoglake’s Kevin Gozstola, and Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce. He has promised to continue until the administration guarantees that it will not kill U.S. citizens within the United States. And his filibuster is undoubtedly the political story of the day, in mainstream news and otherwise.

Greenwald tweeted this afternoon: “Claimed assassination powers unite people” after Paul cited his column.

“Pretty sad — and pretty revealing — that it was left to Rand Paul to raise in the Senate the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki,” Greenwald tweeted later.

“What we’re seeing with the Brennan nomination is what has been so urgently needed, but destructively missing, for so long: Congress playing the role it was intended to play by impeding Executive Branch extremism and prioritizing, for once, its institutional responsibilities over trivial partisan loyalties,” Greenwald told BuzzFeed in an email later. “Everyone, regardless of party, has an equal interest in ensuring that the ability of the president to abuse power in secret is constrained. That this current battle is being led by members of both parties underscores that fact, and has the real potential to trigger a truly trans-partisan campaign against the presidential assault on core liberties being waged on a pretense of national security.”

“Not sure if it’s a ‘we’ve arrived’ moment but I’m glad to see that someone is sticking up for civil liberties (and ultimately international law),” said another drone program critic, Michael Shank, a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, in an email.

“Amazing that it’s a Republican,” Shank said. “Appreciated Wyden’s nod to the senator from Kentucky, that he ‘made a number of important points.’ Now for more Dems to stand up.”

Ron Wyden, who was the only Democrat to join the filibuster, said after he had left the floor that “we’re pushing our efforts as visibly as we can.”

Marco Rubio, who also briefly joined in, said afterward that he thought the issue had been simmering in the Senate for a while.

“I think there have been significant civil liberties questions going on in the two years that I’ve been here,” Rubio said. “I think, for me, the issue here today was more about the right of individual senators, no matter how we may feel about what they stand for, to have answered relevant questions, particularly questions of constitutional importance.”

Though the filibuster has captured the attention of the political class on Twitter, Boaz argued that its true effectiveness would come if it makes headlines and leads news broadcasts today and tomorrow.

“I guess a lot of it depends on — do the newspapers and the networks treat this as news today?” Boaz said. “I hope this is going to be significant. I also think this is significant in that Rand Paul is clearly positioning himself to run for president.”

Boaz called for more Democrats to join in (“Why isn’t Pat Leahy down there? Why aren’t some of the other civil libertarian Democrats there?”) but praised Paul for “pushing conservatives to get excited about civil liberties.”

As of 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Paul’s filibuster was still in progress.

Rebecca Berg contributed additional reporting.

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