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Glenn Greenwald: Rand Paul may have been right, even if he is a Republican

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?

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/11/2013 - 10:44 am.

    Can’t have Americans facing the same rapid “trial, conviction and execution” meted out elsewhere, can we?

    Brings a new meaning to “justice delayed is justice denied”, eh?

    The right end curls around so far sometimes that it becomes the left end.

    Some people favored the Michigan Militia and others favored the Black Panthers–but they both loved guns as a means to achieve their ideas of Constitutional ends.

    However I still have my cynical doubts whether the same filibuster would have been performed if a Republican was president.

    • Submitted by Herbert Davis on 03/11/2013 - 11:54 am.

      same if a Republican president?

      What Senator Paul did was the right thing to do no matter who was president and I suspect he might not have done the right thing IF a republican was President….but the President is Obama and it doesn’t matter…Sen. Paul was right to call attention to this and I am sad that both of my senators sat on their butt while the chance to challenge these killings and their secrecy goes unchallenged.

      • Submitted by Nick Benton on 03/12/2013 - 02:18 pm.


        You honestly think he wouldn’t care if a Republican was President? Have you not followed the Pauls?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 03/11/2013 - 10:47 am.

    Tough questions

    Eric, you’re going a little too far even for me in this one. Obama is not killing “foreigners on foreign soil… for any reason that satisfies him”. The Taliban’s retreat into Pakistan, and their subsequent continuation of the war from these safe havens, left us the choice of invading Pakistan or coming up with another way to strike at the Taliban. Surely, the drone strikes are the less intrusive of the two. That doesn’t necessarily make them good or moral, more the lesser of two evils.

    And this isn’t a new issue. We invaded Mexico back in 1916 to chase after Pancho Villa. Old technology but basically the same issue.

    I also have trouble with Greenwald’s splitting hairs about Awlaki not being in combat, but coming from breakfast. It’s not a war crime to kill a soldier with an artillery shell while he’s sleeping in his foxhole. I’d say the same counts for breakfast.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/11/2013 - 11:09 am.

    It’s not really “targeted” assassination.

    The effective casualty (50% dead) radius for a Hellfire missile is 20 meters ( a circle 130 feet in diameter)..

    The effective casualty radius for a 500 pound bomb is 60 meters ( a circle 400 feet in diameter).

    “Guilt by association”, or at least “proximity”.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/11/2013 - 11:54 am.

    Good questions, Eric, by both you and Greenwald. I share Neal Rovick’s doubts about the likelihood of filibuster were the Oval Office occupied by a Republican, but while I usually find myself on the “Democrats, Good” end of the “Democrats Good, GOP Bad” spectrum Greenwald uses, the key word, in my case at least, is “usually.” For the most part, I think filibusters are either silly, or attempts by a very narrow minority to control the majority government they oppose. Neither strikes me as especially admirable, but while I still didn’t like Senator Paul’s chosen means of protest, his protest was — and is — legitimate.

    Not long after the 9/11 attack, there was much discussion by pundits over whether or not “the terrorists” could “win” a conflict with the United States. In those discussions, “winning” by the terrorists was very often characterized by changes in American civil society that many, if not most, Americans thought of as being repressive and morally objectionable. An awful lot of those concerns have come to pass, from holding people indefinitely in prison without charges to characterizing opposition to a completely unjustified invasion of a foreign country as “treason,” to, now, a kind of officially-sanctioned assassination.

    For the most part, Senator Paul’s thinking strikes me as being rather far afield from sensible, but I think he’s largely correct about the use of drones. I agree with Thomas Eckhardt that drone strikes are surely the less intrusive of the choices he (Eckhardt) offers, but think we’re increasingly reliant on the President-as-Commander-In-Chief rationale to justify actions that Dwight Eisenhower, a REAL military commander-in-chief, would have found appalling.

    I’m also inclined to agree with Eckhardt’s last paragraph, though I’d add a very important “If” to the beginning of his sentence, “It’s not a war crime to…” Personally, his example strikes me as one more among many reasons to resort to warfare only as an absolute last resort response to a genuine attack, rather than using it merely as a tool of foreign policy. The Bush administration obviously tended toward the latter, making perhaps the most egregious foreign policy mistake in our history, and the Obama administration is following those very flawed footsteps.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2013 - 11:54 am.

    Rand Paul

    I’m not turning cartwheels of joy over Senator Paul’s new incarnation as a defender of the rights of Americans. It has nothing to do with him being a Republican, it’s because of the rest of his record:

    Opposing the parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bar discrimination in public accommodations (not an old position, one he espoused as recently as 2010):

    Advocating putting people in prison for attending radical meetings;

    Favoring keeping the prison at Guantanamo open, and favoring military commission trials for those held there;

    Opposing construction of the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan (the “Ground Zero mosque”); and

    Working to end legal abortion, to the extent of threatening to filibuster a flood insurance bill if a fetal personhood amendment were not attached.

    On the very limited issue of drone strikes on US soil against US citizens, he gets it right (even a stopped clock, etc.). The rest of his civil liberties record is not that impressive.

    • Submitted by Nick Benton on 03/12/2013 - 02:22 pm.


      When did he advocate putting people in prison for attending radical meetings? Or favor keeping Guantanamo open?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/15/2013 - 11:45 am.


        1. May 27, 2011, on Sean Hannity’s radio show. Ironically enough, he was discussing his opposition to the renewal of the USA-PATRIOT Act: ” But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after — they should be deported or put in prison.”

        2. In 2010 (can’t find the exact date), he reversed his position on Guantanamo and military commissions: “Foreign terrorists do not deserve the protections of our Constitution…These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil. I will always fight to keep Kentucky safe and that starts with cracking down on our enemies.”

  6. Submitted by Tom Clark on 03/11/2013 - 02:25 pm.

    Neither Rand or Greenwald are correct

    The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed gave the President authority to use military force against al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the drone strikes that Obama has approved have been against members of those two organizations. The claim that drones can be used at will against any target deemed to be “engaged in combat” against the U.S. is unfounded, given the stated scope of the AUMF. The killing of Awlaki (let’s not call it assassination since it wasn’t murder – Awlaki had long been declared an enemy combatant based on his joining al Qaeda and thus under the AUMF was a lawful target) wasn’t as Greenwald claims, an act committed merely at the whim of the President.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/11/2013 - 05:40 pm.

      The problem is the term ‘combatant’.

      Originally it referred to a member of the armed forces of a country against which we had declared war — I believe that this is the accepted definition in international law.
      Now of course, we are in a situation where we are not legally at war with anyone (‘terror’ is not a person or country against whom one can declare war). Members of al Qaeda and the Taliban don’t wear uniforms or carry military ID, so in many cases the U.S. government is the one who defines membership in these organizations.
      Thus Congress’s 2001 legislation is internally flawed in that it is based on undefined entities, which is why Rand Paul’s question had any meaning.
      It’s uncomfortably close to “the American president can kill anyone anywhere by declaring them an ‘enemy combatant’.

  7. Submitted by Richard Molby on 03/11/2013 - 02:49 pm.

    Sorry, Rand Paul is an opportunist not a visionary. Does the president have the right to order the death of an American on US soil, period? The method of the kill doesn’t matter. Paul knew that singling out drones would get him favorable attention due to the fear factor of an anonymous strike from the sky.

  8. Submitted by Tom Clark on 03/11/2013 - 04:42 pm.

    Here’s a good analysis of the use of drones

    and why they’re raising questions about where the line should be drawn for them:

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