Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sees it as a very simple question, which could easily be answered with a “yes” or a “no”: Can the Obama administration authorize the use of lethal force—such as a drone strike—against a U.S. citizen on American soil?
Paul’s question remains unanswered, despite repeated requests for information from John Brennan, President Obama’s top pick to become CIA director. So Paul is determined to hold up Brennan’s nomination until his concerns are allayed.
“I think there’s a certain bit of arrogance that they are not even willing to respond at all to us on this,” Paul told National Journal Daily on Tuesday.
While Chuck Hagel was approved as Defense secretary by the Senate and Jacob Lew’s nomination as Treasury secretary was cleared in committee, Brennan’s confirmation appears to face at least one significant hurdle in Paul’s line of questioning.
Drones have become a hot topic in Washington in recent weeks, since a Justice Department white paper was leaked to the media, raising questions about the administration’s ability to kill American terrorist suspects abroad. A version of Paul’s question even came up in a question-and-answer session with Obama sponsored by Google earlier this month.
Insisting there has never been a drone used against an American citizen on American soil, Obama said: “We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States.
“The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States,” Obama continued. But Paul is not convinced. The evasive response, he says, “sort of, to me, implies that they are assuming they have some kind of authority inside the United States.”
Brennan himself toed a similar line responding to questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, when he said the administration has no intention of carrying out such strikes against Americans at home—and this, too, is not enough for Paul. “I want to hear the answer that they are not assuming the authority, or they don’t believe they have the authority, to kill Americans on American soil with a program from the Department of Defense or the CIA,” Paul said. “The current law says the CIA can’t and is not supposed to be assassinating anyone here at home, and it’s also supposed to be the same for the Department of Defense.”
This concern does not come out of nowhere. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that neither Congress nor the courts have limited the geographic scope of Washington’s ability to use force in the current conflict in Afghanistan, and Brennan has also failed to describe any geographical limits on the scope of the administration’s ability to conduct drone strikes. “The obvious follow-up question would be: ‘If you have no limitations, would that include the United States?’ ” Paul said.
“Americans thought it was important that you get a warrant before tapping someone’s phone. I would think that they would want some due process before they were killed. To me, this pales in comparison to even warrantless wiretapping because that’s an invasion of your privacy; now we’re talking about killing you,” Paul said. “There has to be some kind of judicial oversight of a program like this.... We want to make sure the people who are punished are the guilty ones, not just those accused.”
While Paul’s main concern is on the home front, he is also worried about the executive branch’s assertion of its rights to kill American citizens abroad without due process. In 2011, a drone attack killed radical Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—an American citizen—along with Samir Khan, another U.S. citizen who ran a publication propagating terrorism but was reportedly not on a specific “kill list.”
Some senators have said that they would be open to considering legislation to establish a special court system to oversee the drone-strike program, particularly when it comes to American terrorist suspects. This could be similar to the special court that, under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, signs off on government surveillance.
Paul said there was considerable evidence that Awlaki, who was identified as chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was a traitor, and he said he does not have “a lot of sympathy” that Awlaki was killed. That doesn’t mean, Paul adds, that Awlaki did not deserve a federal trial—even in absentia.
“If he didn’t come home, I would have allowed him to have representation, or I would have appointed representation. He could have been tried whether he was here or not,” Paul said. “If the evidence is secret, go into closed session even in a federal court with a jury, convict him of treason, and the penalty for treason can be death.…There needs to be a process of accusation, trial, conviction.”
This article appears in the Feb. 27, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Paul Cites ‘Arrogance’ In Blocking Brennan.