In a scene straight out of Frank Capra’s classic 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday launched a filibuster against the nomination of John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. A classic filibuster means a senator speaks until the U.S. Senate votes to invoke cloture, or the end of debate, which requires 60 votes instead of a majority of 51.
In recent years, a “filibuster” has evolved to mean that an item temporarily is shelved, avoiding the long-winded speeches. Opponents of filibusters insist that they are anti-democratic, that a simple majority should decide every vote in the Senate. But, as a radio commentator in the movie advises when Sen. Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, begins to speak, “Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet.”
Sen. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is appropriately concerned. Brennan, who has been deputy counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama, has encouraged more attacks in foreign countries using remotely controlled aircraft against people the White House deems to be terrorists. The president is the final arbiter in these strikes. There is no judge, jury or defense attorney before someone is targeted and killed. Sen. Paul does not want that practice to spread to American soil, against our own citizens.
Sen. Paul has tried to get Attorney General Eric Holder to take a stand on the legality of domestic drone strikes. Holder eventually wrote, “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”
In a letter, Sen. Paul replied: “The U.S. attorney general’s refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil is more than frightening — it is an affront the constitutional due process rights of all Americans.” Hence, the filibuster.
The Fifth Amendment clearly states, “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” This protection of individual liberty stretches back to England’s Magna Carta in 1215.
However the filibuster turns out — Brennan’s nomination sailed through the Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan vote — Sen. Paul is right to bring the drone issue to national attention. And the Senate should not confirm Brennan until the Obama administration pledges not to use drones to attack Americans in their own country.
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