The talking filibuster by senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and the sharp questioning of the Attorney General Eric Holder by senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) produced some positive results. Afterwards, Holder issued a letter that said that the answer to the question “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” is no. The White House press secretary Jay Carney was slightly less categorical at a later press conference, saying “The president has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil” but then quoted Holder’s letter implying that the president agreed with it.
As Conor Friedersdorf points out, Holder’s earlier letter to Paul was an attempt to not concede that “the executive branch is legally forbiddento do certain things …, despite the fact that an unchecked executive is much more dangerous than the possibility of a future president failing to do enough to fight back against an actual attack on our homeland” and that Holder’s wording was “non-responsive, evasive, and deliberately manipulative”.
We should not be too elated by this. The new wording is narrow, limiting the actions to ‘weaponized drones’ and to US citizens in the US. The issue of the US government feeling it has the right to kill people without any oversight in the never-ending and supposedly global ‘war on terror’ is a much broader problem. We can be sure that the government will, if it has to, find ways to achieve its goals by maneuvering around this wording or even ignoring its promises altogether.
But there is a very positive lesson to be drawn from this episode. What should be emphasized is that the administration felt forced to issue a disclaimer because of the attention that the Rand talking filibuster and Cruz’s questioning had generated. Suddenly there was a lot of discussion on the issue of what limits, if any, existed on presidential power that I am certain that the administration and other advocates of an executive branch that has unlimited warlike powers would have rather have avoided. Witness the scorn that John McCain and Lindsey Graham poured on their Republican colleagues for daring to raise this issue at all.
One would hope that the take-away lesson is that at least some politicians and the media must focus attention on important issues. Otherwise we will continue the creeping undermining of constitutional protections and the rule of law.
Andy Borowitz manages to get some humor out of the whole business.