Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.
But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?
And that, in turn, led to many asking a related series of questions: what exactly do we know about the drone program? Does it have limits, and if so, what are they? Why, people wondered, didn’t they know exactly what the federal government’s guidelines are regarding these floating robot assassins suddenly the centerpiece of our anti-terror efforts? Sensing they were losing the spin battle, the White House had Attorney General Eric Holder finally respond with a terse note, basically saying the government cannot drone Fonda. Not good enough, says Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and is now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
Still, the letter left more questions unanswered than answered. Indeed, a simple “no” is hardly reassuring when the policy it supports is not clear.
In the domestic context, drones should never be used against citizens unless there is an armed conflict on U.S. soil….
Only the Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked with reviewing safety of domestic drones – nothing related to legal or security issues….
In the absence of congressional action, more than 30 state legislatures are banning or contemplating bills governing domestic drone use. But we need a national solution – not a fragmentation of state and local laws.
Harman’s CNN.com op-ed is titled “Rand Paul is Right.” In a similar op-ed in the Washington Post, former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta writes that “The Obama administration is wrong” to withhold documents being requested by Congress that would shed light on the secret drone programs. Podesta writes:
It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy, and that unauthorized disclosure can be extraordinarily harmful. But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.
In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.
And there is one Senate Democrat who isn’t dropping the issue, either. West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller objected to the freezing-out of Congress in a meeting with President Obama this week, Politico reports. According to those at the meeting, Obama offered a magnificently unserious and contemptuous response: “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,” the president said.
Perhaps the usually humorless Obama was trying awkwardly to make a joke, and just isn’t very funny. But the Democrats in the meeting, especially Rockefeller, weren’t amused. According to Politico, the senators reminded Obama that if he were in the Senate and a Republican were in the White House, he would be outraged by this behavior. Obama apparently acknowledged that, yes, he was being quite hypocritical. Rockefeller also objected to the fact that when he was finally allowed to see a couple of memos in a secure room, the White House sent a babysitter in to watch him.
The White House has tried to make it abundantly clear that they don’t appreciate oversight or transparency from Congress, least of all from members of the president’s own party. But those outside of Congress are starting to feel more comfortable openly challenging the president on executive authority, and going on record in support of Paul. The Kentucky senator is winning a second week’s worth of news cycles on this issue. The president may not consider himself accountable to Paul, but neither can he ignore him.