Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Rand Paul’s Filibuster and Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
March 7, 2013

U.S. senator Paul appears on a television screen in an office at the U.S. Capitol as he filibusters in opposition to the nomination of Brennan to lead the CIA on March 6, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. senator Paul appears on a television screen in an office at the U.S. Capitol as he filibusters in opposition to the nomination of Brennan to lead the CIA on March 6, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).


Although Rand Paul will deservedly receive all the attention, yesterday’s marathon filibuster was catalyzed by the Obama administration’s general refusal to engage with Congress on the issue of targeted killings. Like any White House desiring maximum authority with minimal oversight, the Obama administration maintained that it is only required to report covert actions by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and counterterrorism operations by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to the requisite intelligence and armed services committees. While Congress is almost never satisfied with the responsiveness and openness of the executive branch, members who do not serve on the aforementioned committees are particularly upset about the lack of clarifying information on drones. In part, this is because the issue is so widely debated, but also because this administration’s practice echoes the even less responsive nature of the George W. Bush administration.

For over two years, members have requested at least twenty times the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos that provide a legal justification into all targeted killings. Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked again when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he promised to ‘look into it.” It is remarkable that Congress and the American public now have a declassified narrative of the OLC memos regarding the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, some of which Holder also declassified, but not the legal basis for when or why someone can be targeted and killed. Furthermore, it is important to note that the only reason we know anything about the White House detailed legal rationale is because someone leaked the Department of Justice white paper to NBC News.

Members and staffers on the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs committees (who have proper clearances) have asked repeatedly to receive closed-door briefings on aspects of targeted killings occurring in the geographic areas where they exercise oversight. They have been refused on several occasions, as have other requests by elected representatives from both chambers. In at least one instance, the members threatened to withhold funding (a la Vietnam) in support of lethal strikes unless additional briefings were provided. The White House called their bluff, and the threat was never carried out.

For an activity that has become the defining tactic of U.S. foreign policy, it is notable how little congressional members and staff members on both sides of the aisle know about targeted killings. They raise many concerns that go far beyond the statutorily limited oversight conducted by the intelligence and armed services committees. Yesterday, several members of the Senate intelligence committee also stood with Paul to highlight their own issues, which fall outside the purviews of their committee. There is also the enduring concern that—as under most administrations—Congress is not properly notified of other lethal covert activities. For example, in July 2009 the Wall Street Journal revealed that CIA had established kill or capture teams after 9/11 to go after suspected a-Qaeda members living in populated areas where drone strikes would not be appropriate. After this went public, “congressional Democrats were furious that the program had not been shared with the committees,” and CIA director Leon Panetta shut down the teams.

The attention of U.S. policymakers and public on targeted killings has always been focused on today’s headlines, and projecting what might happen in five or ten years. Once a new “revelation” fades from the headlines, so does the interest. More important than the theater of Rand Paul’s filibuster would be its impact (if any) on rallying the sustained interest of his colleagues to examine the full scope of America’s ten years and four months-practice of targeted killings. This will only be possible if the White House—as it has promised to do for many months—decides to more comprehensively engage with Congress, the American people, and the world about this unending Third War.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by JL

    Dr. Paul’s efforts were historic. He did not stop Brennan, but effectively launched his 2016 campaign, forced his peers to go on record as to their stance on the issue, drew a clear distinction between himself, Mr. Rubio, Mr. McCain, and others, and he showed that he was a true princilpled statesman. This was an all around win and act of political genius for Paul the Younger.

  • Posted by Phil


    “…comprehensively engage with Congress, the American people, AND THE WORLD about this unending Third War.”

    Most outstanding and important comment ever written on the subject.

    THIS is what it’s all about! Transparency and accountability. Tighten that leash Congress – the US admin since 2001 has been on a drunken adventure for too long !

    Time for the hangover.

  • Posted by D Donohue

    Article from March 6, 2013
    CHANGE…. Well, we seem to have gotten it. Unfortunately it has happened by decree, in secret, in the back rooms of the Executive Branch. In the Bush years, dismissing US Attorneys who disagreed with official poilcy was a national scandal. Now, killing 4000 people to target 400 individuals, without due process, without international disclosure or sanction is acceptable, because Obama wants us to believe him when he says he’s doing it for our greater good.
    As I recall, he was hired to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution… that piece of old paper that defines our rights, and eloquently describes the Idea that is America. The document that says ALL MEN are entitled to LIFE, etc. Not just Americans at home, or Americans on foreign soil, but presumably other citizens of the world.

    Why are we incensed only when Americans are targeted overseas? Are we so arrogant as a nation that we are the sole and unassailable arbiters of which individuals live or die? And of the 3600 individuals who were collateral damage… even if we are somehow justified in killing the targeted 400. Bad luck? Tough S**t? The reserve clause of the Constitution says that the PEOPLE own ALL rights not specifically enumerated and granted to the Federal government or to the States.

    Our (“All men”) right to life is not up to you to decide, Mr. Soetoro. Nor to your secret death panels, acting on our behalf. You have overstepped your authority.

    In the era of State-less wars, perhaps nations need to create a mechanism for declaring war against individuals. I cannot fathom why the other 6.5 billion people on Earth who are NOT Americans would be williing to give that power to a secret panel, with secret criteria, appointed by an American President. If their representatives in the UN can agree on such criteria, it would begin to have the semblance of a moral action. Meanwhile, Obama can not claim moral high ground on behalf of the American people and continue this policy, any more than Hitler could justify bombing Poland. It’s OK for us, because we are the light of the world? It’s OK for Soetoro because he knows what’s best for us, in his opinion? The consequences of deciding who lives and dies will accrue to Americans for decades. As champions of ‘democracy’ we should not be surprised that the majority of the world’s peoiple might feel justified in targeting one of us, even if there are a dozen or more innocents in proximity.
    Any other President would be impeached, or brought to trial in the Hague. IMHO. If you need to keep killing bad guys, just don’t keep saying we are morally justified. We will eventually reap what we sow. The Pope is ALSO supposed to be infallible, yet atrocities ar committed in the name of the church. Claiming you are right doesn’t mean you ARE.

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