On March 6, 2013, Sen. Rand Paul held a marathon 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. He began speaking at 11:47 AM on Wednesday and ended at 12:39 AM early Thursday morning.
It was a long night.
The issue: Potential drone strikes on American citizens. At the time, this was something Brennan and the Obama administration would not clearly say it did not have the constitutional authority to do.
Sen. Paul needed to hear Brennan say precisely that.
Droning American citizens was also something the Obama administration had carried out in 2011, including the killing of an American minor abroad. As the New York Times recounted in July 2012, “The first strike, on Sept. 30, killed a group of people including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico, and Samir Khan, a naturalized American citizen who lived at times in Queens, Long Island and North Carolina. The second, on Oct. 14, killed a group of people including Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was born in Colorado.”
When asked by a reporter how the Obama administration could justify the killing of a teenage American citizen with zero due process, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki should have “had a more responsible father.”
"Asked about the strike that killed him, a senior adviser to @BarackObama's campaign suggests he should've
"had a more responsible father.""
— redsarah99🇵🇸 #BlackLivesMatter (@redsarah99) February 28, 2023
So that was the political environment regarding civil liberties in 2013.
Paul said during the time of the filibuster, “I have allowed the president to pick his appointees, but I will not sit quietly and let him shred the Constitution. I cannot sit at my desk quietly and let the president say he will kill Americans on American soil who are not actively attacking the country.”
The reaction to Paul’s act was overwhelming. The filibuster was the top story across the country, galvanizing and even uniting for a time Tea Party conservatives and hard Left progressives over the issues of due process and basic civil liberties.
The feminist antiwar group Code Pink delivered a giant pink heart praising Paul for his filibuster.
I don’t know who needs to hear this but the antiwar Left and libertarians making alliances is not remotely new and was always a big part of the Ron Paul movement.
This was delivered to Rand Paul’s office by Left antiwar group Code Pink during his 2013 filibuster against drones. pic.twitter.com/DotFaFkOgd
— Jack Hunter (@jackhunter74) February 21, 2023
As a gauge of how popular and successful the filibuster had been in changing public opinion, Slate’s Dave Weigel noted that after a month of people still talking about Paul’s stance, one poll showed there had been a “A 50‐point swing against targeted drone killings of U.S. citizens.”
Since Rand Paul's filibuster, there has been a 50-point swing against targeted drone killings of U.S. citizens–POLL: http://t.co/N2G8lxfaX8
— Slate (@Slate) March 25, 2013
Weigel observed back then, “A year ago, as the presidential race was taking shape, The Washington Post’s pollster asked voters whether they favored the use of drones to kill terrorists or terror suspects if they were ‘American citizens living in other countries.’”
“The net rating at the time was positive: 65 percent for, 26 percent against,” he noted.
Then came a massive shift in opinion.
“Today, after a month of Rand Paul-driven discussion of drone warfare, Gallup asks basically the same question: Should the U.S. ‘use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists?”
“The new numbers: 41 percent for, 52 percent against.”
Sen. Paul had taken an issue most Americans never even thought about, and to the degree that they did, a strong majority agreed with the government’s position. After Paul highlighted the issue in such a spectacular manner, the majority of the public came over to his side.
That doesn’t happen every day. That usually doesn’t happen on any day.
Passing or stopping legislation is any member of Congress’s primary job. But if some are lucky, they might get to change hearts and minds.
For one heady moment in 2013, Rand Paul did just that.