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Rand Paul's stunt misses the point

Clarence Page

March 10, 2013

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If you took Sen. Rand Paul duck hunting, he'd probably shoot the decoy.

That's the impression the first-term Kentucky Republican gave when he took the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday for a 13-hour rambling real-life imitation of Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Paul grabbed the national spotlight but did more to distract from the key issues of President Barack Obama's secret drone wars than shed light on it.

Paul launched his filibuster — without a lot of planning, he later admitted — after he was dissatisfied with a one-page letter from Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday in response to the question of whether the president "has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without trial."

Holder responded, unsurprisingly, that the Obama administration had no such intention except perhaps in a hypothetical "extraordinary circumstance" such as the Sept. 11 or Pearl Harbor attacks.

Suddenly, we were treated to a good example of why attorneys general should avoid hypotheticals. There was lots of talk after 9/11 about the need for such extraordinary actions as shooting down a hijacked jetliner full of Americans, to offer one grisly example. But Paul and his supporters suddenly dreamed up scenarios of U.S. citizens being blown up in cafes by Hellfire missiles.

And that's what Paul rambled on about on the Senate floor, along with allies who enabled him to take an occasional break — although it was the need to go to the bathroom that brought his marathon to a close.

He received the unequivocal statement from Holder that he sought regarding the president's authority to bomb Americans on American soil. The two-sentence letter boiled down to "no."

Paul declared victory. The Senate overwhelmingly confirmed John Brennan, whose nomination to be CIA director was held up by the filibuster. Unlikely allies chose sides. While the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a longtime critic of Obama's drone secrecy, praised Paul, hawkish senior Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina scolded him as a young whippersnapper whose cafe-bombing scenarios, in McCain's words, took the debate into the "realm of the ridiculous."

Besides, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, pointed out, as Paul launched into his flamboyant filibuster, Holder was giving the same answer to Paul's Republican ally Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

But, worst of all, Paul's grandstanding avoided the real questions about which Obama and his team need to be more candid and transparent: What is the policy under which certain names, including those of American citizens who have turned into enemy combatants but not on American soil, are put on the president's hit list?

And what about unarmed drones? Under what circumstances can they be allowed to peek into the private lives of private citizens from the air?

The president brought the questions on himself the way leaders often do — by too much secrecy and too little accountability. Long-sought Justice Department memos, for example, were not disclosed until the same week as Paul's filibuster.

Obama could greatly increase the credibility and legitimacy of his drone wars by laying out his criteria before the public and by seeking more oversight by Congress and secret courts, such as those that now oversee sensitive national security cases.

We can have more accountability that actually enhances national security without getting in its way. I, for one, am not anti-drone. As an Army veteran, I appreciate the value of drones as an effective military weapon that is much less messy than sending in ground troops and conventional bombers and fighter planes.

Most Americans approve of drones in polls, while also holding understandable reservations, as I do, about the need for accountability and the damage their use can do to our image overseas. That's another good reason, just for starters, to put drones under the authority of the Defense Department, not the CIA, where the counterterrorism drones are under less public scrutiny.

It is unfortunate that Sen. Paul did not see fit to pursue more of those urgent issues with his filibuster stunt. Maybe he'll get around to the drone war's real questions when he's ready to get serious about lawmaking.

Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.

cpage@tribune.com

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