Writing for the Guardian over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald, a fierce and methodically logical civil-liberties defender, launched a powerful attack on those who tried to mock or dismiss Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of concern about President Obama’s expansion of drone attacks.
It’s a long and relentlessly-reasoned attack on liberals who cannot see past their usual assumption that Rand must be wrong and crazy because he is a Republican and is even admired by that party’s Tea Party wing. From the piece:
… A large bulk of the Democratic and liberal commentariat — led, as usual, by the highly-paid DNC spokesmen called “MSNBC hosts” and echoed, as usual, by various liberal blogs, which still amusingly fancy themselves as edgy and insurgent checks on political power rather than faithful servants to it — degraded all of the weighty issues raised by this episode by processing it through their stunted, trivial prism of partisan loyalty. They thus dutifully devoted themselves to reading from the only script they know: Democrats Good, GOP Bad.
Some of those liberals may think the power to murder by drone-strike individuals (and unfortunate bystanders) anywhere in the world, for crimes of which they have not been convicted, is not a problem because they trust President Obama to use the power judiciously. Greenwald reminds them that Obama will not always be president, but the history of the expansion of executive authority since 9/11 suggests that extraordinary new terrorism-fighting powers, once asserted, have never expired nor has anyone suggested when they will.
It’s a long piece, which I commend to you. But one thing Greenwald did was to reject the happy ending that supposedly occurred after the filibuster when Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to Sen. Paul assuring him that the administration does not assert that presidents “have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The weasel-word in that formulation, which bothered me as soon as I heard it, is “combat.” Greenwald went after it hard:
As Law Professor Ryan Goodman wrote yesterday in the New York Times, “the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has acted with an overly broad definition of what it means to be engaged in combat.” That phrase — “engaged in combat” — does not only include people who are engaged in violence at the time you detain or kill them. It includes a huge array of people who we would not normally think of, using common language, as being “engaged in combat.”
Indeed, the whole point of the Paul filibuster was to ask whether the Obama administration believes that it has the power to target a US citizen for assassination on US soil the way it did to Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a “combatant,” that he was “engaged in combat,” even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast. If the Obama administration believes that Awlaki was “engaged in combat” at the time he was killed — and it clearly does — then Holder’s letter is meaningless at best, and menacing at worst, because that standard is so broad as to vest the president with exactly the power his supporters now insist he disclaimed.
The phrase “engaged in combat” has come to mean little more than: anyone the President accuses, in secrecy and with no due process, of supporting a Terrorist group.
By the way (and this comes more from myself than from Greenwald), by focusing on the unlikeliest and most personally (to American citizens) alarming possibility that presidents now have the power to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, do we mean to accept the assertion that a president does have the power to kill foreigners on foreign soil, including in countries with which we are not at war, for any reason that satisfies him?