Michael Ratner: Rand Paul’s filibuster forces Attorney General to acknowledge US president can not order the killing of US citizens on American soil but does not rule out the global campaign of targeted assassinations.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Thursday, the Senate confirmed now CIA director John Brennan. That was after a day of filibustering from Senator Rand Paul. And here to discuss all this is Michael Ratner.
Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network.
Thank you for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, tell us, what was this filibuster all about?
RATNER: No, well, we can go to the filibuster, but first I think the big news for the day is that Brennan was confirmed by a vote of 63 to 34, getting almost every Democratic vote but two, not getting Bernie Sanders’ vote. And you first have to say it’s just a complete outrage. And if it illustrates anything, it’s that the two parties are essentially on the same page when it comes to national security issues, drones, Guantanamo, etc. Yeah, the Republicans, a bunch of them voted, you know, against Brennan, but in the end this was a foregone conclusion. And what’s shocking about it, of course, is that Brennan couldn’t—not have been CIA director when Obama took office four years ago. Four years ago he was considered to have his hand too deeply in the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—torture—and he couldn’t get the job. Then he took over the drone policy. And now that he’s running the drone policy, apparently that’s just hunky dory with everybody. Let him shoot drones all over the world and kill people. And now he gets to be confirmed as CIA.
But it wasn’t without some scrappiness about it, and I think that’s what you’re referring to, which was the Rand Paul filibuster. Now, Rand Paul did something that I would have liked to see some liberal Democrats do, which is to filibuster and say, give us more information about what you’re doing, give us some guarantees. Now, what Rand Paul asked for was really very narrow, and I think way too narrow. He wanted to guarantee that U.S. citizens residing in the United States, doing everything in the United States, would not be killed by drones while they’re in the United States, but would be subjected essentially to the criminal law and arrested, etc.
Eric Holder wrote a letter a few days ago to Senator Paul saying in what circumstances he would use arrests and when he could possibly use military force. It left open a big question. It did leave open the question of let’s say there’s an alleged terrorist in the United States who’s an American citizen. He’s not a current combatant. He’s somebody they believe [incompr.] alleged terrorist, much like the people they kill overseas, even American citizens overseas, like Anwar al-Aulaqi, who they killed in Yemen, someone like that in the United States. Could that person be killed by a drone? Or would they have to be arrested and taken to prison and tried, etc.? Holder gave a line in his letter that one could read ambiguously. I mean, it was pretty clear he said, we don’t plan to use this, but it seemed to be a question of policy and that they could change their minds. And I think that was going to be a problem.
So Rand Paul went on the floor on Tuesday and Wednesday—I guess Wednesday, almost all day, 13 hours, basically filibustered about this issue, what are the circumstances they can kill an American living in America if that person is an alleged terrorist. And finally, today, probably a few hours ago, this letter, which your viewers can get online, is a terse letter from the attorney general that says, dear Senator Paul, it has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question ([incompr.] it was hardly an additional question), but, quote, does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil. Eric Holder answers: the answer to that question is no.
And that’s interesting. So Paul actually did achieve something, because up until that letter, it would have been the case that an American president felt that he had the authority and Obama felt that he had the authority, and he may—Obama would have felt he had the authority, and he would have never know when he would have exercised it. This Rand Paul filibuster did get the president to say, if there’s an alleged—really what he’s saying, if there’s an alleged terrorist on U.S. soil who’s a U.S. citizen, we’re not going to kill him with a drone. It doesn’t necessarily say what else they’re going to do, but it certainly does seem that they’re not going to kill him with a drone. So that is an important admission. It is what got the votes for Brennan to get through in the end. But it’s also much too narrow for me, as both a human rights lawyer, as someone who believes in the morality of our foreign policy and use of force, because it leaves open what the U.S. is actually doing today, which is with targeted assassinations, one means of which being drones. The U.S. is killing alleged terrorists or people they suspect might be terrorists with drones all over the world as if—as if Bush’s global war on terror is continuing, and not just in Afghanistan, not in the edges around Pakistan, but in Somalia, in Yemen, could be in the United Kingdom, could be anywhere in the world. And that’s really important, because what this administration, Obama administration has said: we can kill both U.S. citizens and foreigners outside the United States—foreigners they probably think they can murder inside the United States—but outside the United States we can kill American citizens, even if we don’t think they’re imminently about to attack the United States.
And the case we have at the Center for Constitutional Rights is representing the grandfather and the father—the grandfather of Anwar al-Aulaqi, who was killed in Yemen by drone, and al-Aulaqi’s son, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, who was killed two weeks later by a drone. And we’re suing on behalf of his grandfather living in Yemen. They never had any idea that these two people—obviously, the 16-year-old, they had no idea that he was anything. That was either a wrong target or—I don’t know what it was. With Anwar al-Aulaqi, they said, well, he’s, you know, making propaganda, he’s doing this, he’s doing that; they said he’s alleged to be involved in terror. But there was not the idea that he was pushing a finger on a button, that the guy had to be stopped imminently, that he had a specific threat, a concrete threat. And yet they took out this American citizen and his son, an American citizen.
So what is not answered by Eric Holder in this letter to Rand Paul, and it did not seem to be a major concern of Rand Paul’s or anybody else, is the killing of American alleged terrorists outside the United States, and certainly the killing of foreigners outside the United States. As of this time, it’s something like 4,000 people have been killed by drones. Probably a quarter of those, maybe 800, 1,000, are civilians. And there’s actually—it’s completely, in my view, illegal.
What we’ve seen here, and I think it’s important for viewers to understand, there’s two paradigms of law. There’s one, what you can do in a war when people are actively combatants, when they’re soldiers, when they’re involved in a war directly. That’s Afghanistan. When you take it outside of a war zone, then you have to use the paradigm of criminal law. You say, that person has to be arrested and extradicted. Or if they’re about to push a button, yes, there’s a very narrow circumstance. But it’s under the criminal law that you can actually try and get rid of it in some way or another. It’s very rare. That’s the criminal law paradigm.
But what Obama has done is take the war paradigm, just like Bush did, and using the, quote, authority of a law passed in 2001, after 9/11, the authorization to use military force to expand like Bush did the global war on terror everywhere in the world.
So do I feel safer as an American that Obama says he’s not going to drone me sitting in my apartment in New York City? I may. I don’t think I was about to be droned. But to the extent that means anything, sure. But should you feel safer if you’re an American overseas or if you’re a foreigner overseas or if you’re living in Yemen or Somalia or Afghanistan or Pakistan or a dozen other countries in the world where we use drones or half a dozen? You should not feel any safer by what’s happened. In fact, you should feel less safe, because the very person who’s been directing the drones all over this world is now the head of the CIA, and he will continue to be in charge of death, killing, drones.
DESVARIEUX: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this story. And we’ll have another weekly update with Michael Ratner next week.
Thank you for joining us, Michael.
RATNER: Thank you for being with me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.