Attorney General Eric Holder & CIA Director John Brennan

The United States Senate confirmed John Brennan, who served as President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and was a key architect of the Obama administration’s secret drone policy, to the position of CIA director today. The confirmation came a day after Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) mounted a more-than-twelve-hour filibuster on the Senate floor.

Paul held up the nomination of John Brennan to the position of CIA director to get an answer to one simple question he contended President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had failed to clearly and unequivocally answer.

This morning, Holder finally gave a straightforward answer. To the question of, “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” Holder responded, “The answer to that question is no.” (Paul voted “no” during Brennan’s confirmation vote.)

For over a month, Paul had sought an answer to a question he posed in a letter. He received a response on Tuesday because he was threatening to hold up Brennan’s nomination. The answer did not rule out the use of drone strikes. About an hour before he took to the Senate floor, Holder was asked if using drones to kill a US citizen on US soil, who was suspected of being involved in terrorism but was not an immediate threat, would be legal. Holder repeatedly refused to make a judgment on the constitutionality and said multiple times it would be “inappropriate.”

The answer he received from Holder actually creates new questions. What does it mean to be “engaged in combat”? If a US citizen is suspected of being an “associated force” of al Qaeda or some affiliate group, would it be okay to use a weaponized drone and violate that person’s Fifth Amendment rights to due process? Would it be legal to target and assassinate a person without using a weaponized drone?

Nonetheless, Paul posed a key question that called attention to the reality that a framework has been setup by the government to give it maximum authority with very few (if any) constraints to the use of lethal force against people, even if that means violating a person’s rights or civil liberties.

The reaction to Paul’s filibuster led to sanctimonious griping on the part of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell called what Paul did a “stunt for fundraising and for identifying himself as the president’s big opponent.” MSNBC host Chris Matthews chose to overlook the substance of filibuster and marginalize it by noting he had made a passing reference to Hitler. And, the Wall Street Journal derided him, “Give Rand Paul credit for theatrical timing.”

The Rupert Murdoch-owned paper argued in defense of lethal force against US citizens on US soil:

…Such a conflict exists between the U.S. and al Qaeda, so Mr. Holder is right that the U.S. could have targeted (say) U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki had he continued to live in Virginia. The U.S. killed him in Yemen before he could kill more Americans. But under the law Awlaki was no different than the Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II, were captured and executed…

There was, however, an outpouring of support as well. Few senators, up to this point, have been willing to take a stand and force open debate or discussion on drone policy. Multiple left-leaning people expressed support or sympathy for what Paul had done.

Amy Goodman of _Democracy Now! wrote a Guardian column titled, “America is shamed that only Rand Paul is talking about drone executions.” Peter Beinart for The Daily Beast reacted, “He’s reminding Democrats that no president can be trusted with the unrestrained power to kill, not even one you like.” Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive wrote, “Sen. Paul, whom I disagree with on many issues, is absolutely right about the extreme dangers of President Obama’s assassination doctrine and Brennan’s drone policy.” And, Cenk Uygur of  ”The Young Turks” on Current declared, “Courageous effort by Rand Paul today. He made believers out of some people and shined a light into the darkness.”

Many liberals fixated on the messenger. To this, The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill responded, “You can be totally disgusted with many aspects of Rand Paul’s views and still think he is doing the right thing here. Why is that so crazy?” Editor for The Nation, Liliana Segura, also stated, “Would be nice if those dismissing Rand Paul’s filibuster for his reprehensible views demanded the same moral consistency from the president.”

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Brennan’s nomination produced more discussion on drones than during much of Obama’s first term. This was because Brennan needed to be confirmed as CIA director. Senators like Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon forced the administration to provide answers to questions and share information, like classified legal memos to senators outlining the president’s authority to target and kill suspected terrorists. But, what unfolded is not reassuring enough to allay concern. The president’s claimed power to execute and kill persons abroad still rests upon secret law, which should not be concealed from the public.

Then, there’s the question Paul asked: “Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?” It is a reasonable question given how the paradigm for the Global War on Terrorism has only expanded and become increasingly permanent over the past decades.

The doctrine that the world is a battlefield for waging Global War Against Terrorism has been embraced. There are no geographical limits. There is no temporal limit and could go on for five more years, ten more years or twenty more years. Victory is not defined and success is not outlined either.

A Surveillance State has grossly expanded and the government has protected its authority to eavesdrop and spy on US citizens. It has asserted the power to put people on lists to prevent Americans from traveling on airplanes on the basis that they may pose some threat without informing those people of why they are being listed so they can challenge their listing. The power to seize electronic devices at the US border in suspicionless searches has claimed. Strip-searches without suspicion or probable cause have been carried out by authorities at airports on the basis that one’s skin color or nationality makes them look like a “threat.”  Legislation containing a provision could allow the military to indefinitely detain a person without charge or trial has been defended in US courts by the Obama administration. And, along with this, the government has increased its capacity to collect massive amounts of data on citizens to store and use to go after citizens deemed to be “potential threats.”

Each of these expansions of national security policies to prosecute the Global War on Terrorism infringe upon civil liberties. Yet, the exercise of such powers has become normalized. Numerous Americans accept that this is what government must do because America was attacked on September 11, 2001.

President Barack Obama has claimed the authority to execute persons abroad in places away from any so-called “hot battlefield”—countries where the US is at war. These operations will undoubtedly escalate now that Brennan has been confirmed.

Much about the drone programs—the criteria for placing “suspected terrorists” on kill lists, the legal basis for carrying out drone strikes against foreign and US-born combatants, the procedures followed by the CIA or the military, etc—is not fully known. The Obama administration has fought to keep the law secret in court. Still, it seems a majority of Americans support the use of drones in the fight against terrorism.

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What debate will there be about involvement in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or Mali? Or, will there be any discussion about the expansion of executive power and the distinct possibility of the war coming home to America which Paul’s question alluded to appropriately?

The roles were reversed on Wednesday night with Sen. Dick Durbin standing up in the final hours of Paul’s filibuster to recount the story of the 9/11 attacks. Historically, it had been conservatives like Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Kristol, Rudy Giuliani, John Yoo, Ari Fleischer, etc, who invoked 9/11 when discussions of risks national security policies posed to civil liberties were started. Democrats had been the ones confronting this red herring. But, on Wednesday, it was Paul and a few senators from the GOP who were standing up to say, “Why is it like pulling teeth to get the Obama administration to admit they do not have this power?”

Durbin has planned a committee hearing, but where is this all going? Drones are increasingly becoming a partisan issue, one with Democrats on the wrong side. Thus, principled people, particularly those outside of Congress, will need to take the lead.

Opportunistic Republicans are going to opportunistically oppose President Obama’s use of drones in the coming months in the same way that opportunistic Democrats will always be remembered as politicians who opportunistically opposed Bush’s expansions of executive power. Though torture as a policy was completely disavowed, Guantanamo remained open, warrantless wiretapping continued and no Bush administration officials involved in committing war crimes were ever brought to justice. So, it will be critical to pose questions about the program and highlight the objectionable nature of Obama’s drone policy, regardless of how far right the person raising objections happens to be because it should not be a fringe issue.

On Democracy Now! this morning, John Dinges, author of The Condor Years, compared the use of drones to Operation Condor, which involved the military dictatorships of Latin American countries working together to track down and kill people who were “terrorists.” Many killed were actually “leftist activists, labor organizers, students, priests, journalists, guerrilla fighters” and family members of those targeted.

Dinges suggested:

…I’m having a hard time distinguishing between what they did with Operation Condor, low-tech, and what a drone does, because a drone is basically going into somebody else’s country, even with the permission of that country—of course, that’s what Operation Condor did, in most cases: You track somebody down, and you kill them. Now, the justification is: “Well, they were a criminal. They were a combatant.” Well, that may or may not be true, but nobody is determining that except the person that’s pulling the trigger…

As Paul said, “Outside the United States, the rules for killing are you can kill someone through a signature strike. We don’t have to know what your name is, who you are, who you’re with. If you’re in a line of traffic and we think you’re going from talking to bad people to talking to other bad people, we’ll kill you.”

The Senate put Brennan in control of one of the two drone programs that engages in these sorts of operations (the other is run by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)).

Brennan himself was involved in developing “rules” and the final decision to ultimately exempt the CIA from those “rules” for now. He’ll be in charge of an agency that refuses to acknowledge the existence of its program in court so the ACLU cannot have access to records on the legal basis for the program. And, he’ll be running an agency that has killed thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia over the past few years.

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is considering the expansion of an Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) to go after groups that have absolutely no connection to the people who attacked America on September 11th.

There needs to be a push back. If Bush had recommitted the country to perpetual war, there would have been massive outrage among Democrats or so-called liberals. They would be demanding the Bush administration release legal memos that supposedly give the government authority to engage in warfare wherever they want whenever they want. So, there should be opposition now or individuals and groups should be called out and made to answer for their hypocrisy.