After years in the shadows, the administration’s secret drone program burst into very public view Wednesday with lawmakers grilling the attorney general over legal justification for targeted killings and Sen. Rand Paul launching an old-style one-man filibuster to demand answers from President Obama.
The Kentucky Republican held the floor for almost 13 hours, effectively blocking a vote on the nomination of John O. Brennan, whom Mr. Obama has tapped to be CIA director. He said he would relent only if the administration publicly vowed not to target Americans on U.S. soil.
“This is a long, drawn-out day, but it’s to try to get some answers,” Mr. Paul said after he crossed the eight-hour mark late Wednesday evening. “It’s to try to shame the president into doing the right thing.”
Democrats, who control the chamber, were forced to delay a vote on the Brennan nomination until at least Thursday, and it could go into the weekend, depending on what other blockades Republicans erect.
At issue is the administration’s argument that it can kill those it suspects have ties to terrorism, including U.S. citizens, without having to put them on trial.
The fulcrum of the debate is the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, which many lawmakers said gives too much power to the executive branch — and raises tricky questions about whether drones could be used to execute Americans in the United States.
The administration has only recently acknowledged the drone program and says it is seeking a public debate in order to find common ground on what Americans are ready to accept.
“I think there is going to be a greater effort at the transparency. A number of steps are going to be taken. I expect you will hear the president speaking about this,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning.
But he faced bipartisan demands for more information and more clarity on what is and what isn’t allowed.
“You can hear almost unanimous concern about transparency and wrestling with how to move forward here in a way that protects both our constitutional liberties and our security as a nation,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, told Mr. Holder.
Under close questioning by Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Holder repeatedly said American citizens on U.S. soil were not “appropriate” targets for extrajudicial executions.
Mr. Cruz said that wasn’t good enough.
“You keep saying ‘appropriate.’ My question isn’t about propriety. My question is about whether something is constitutional or not,” the Texas Republican said.
“Let me be clear: Translate my ‘appropriate’ to ‘no.’ I thought I was saying no, all right? No,” Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Holder also said he is not sure Congress could ban the president from using drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil.
He said that likely would run afoul of the Constitution’s grant of powers to the president in Article 2.
The 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen tied to an al Qaeda offshoot, helped push the drone execution program into the public eye — though the administration regularly declined to confirm its existence even as recently as last month.
But NBC News last month obtained a Justice Department memo explaining the legal justification for targeted killings. At the same time, Mr. Obama has been trying to reconstitute his second-term Cabinet, and those nominations have become leverage for senators, who have demanded information in return for agreeing to hold confirmation votes.
The killings overseas have raised questions about what would be allowed on the homeland.
Mr. Paul described the legal situation as one in which one person — the president — holds the power to be the accuser, the judge and the executioner, since terrorist-designation proceedings are all contained within the executive branch and conducted generally in secret.
“Are we so afraid of terrorism, are we so afraid of terrorists that we’re willing to just throw out our rights and freedom?” he said.
But Mr. Holder, speaking to the Judiciary Committee, disputed Mr. Paul’s scenario of someone sitting in a cafe in Kentucky being executed by a drone attack. He said the government cannot use lethal force against an American citizen on U.S. soil unless that person is deemed to be an imminent threat to security. He said that goes for normal law enforcement and the military, even in time of war.
Amid the back-and-forth, Mr. Brennan’s nomination still awaits action.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had hoped to schedule a vote for Wednesday afternoon, but Mr. Paul’s filibuster foiled that.
Mr. Reid said he now wants to vote Thursday, but Republicans could stretch that out through the weekend if they use all parliamentary tactics and time available to them.
Mr. Brennan’s nomination cleared the Senate intelligence committee on a 12-3 vote Tuesday, but the full Senate had just begun its debate when Mr. Paul grabbed the floor at 11:47 a.m. Wednesday and refused to relinquish it until almost 13 hours later, after midnight on Wednesday.
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