Obama faces turning point on administration drone policy

A 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has thrust the expanded use of drone attacks to greater public scrutiny and is putting new pressure on the White House to explain its use of drones to Congress and the public.

The same day Paul went to the Senate floor to press President Obama on whether drones could be used to kill American citizens within U.S. borders, Attorney General Eric Holder said Obama would soon speak to the public about the U.S. drone policy.

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The public address by Obama highlights the administration’s understanding that it needs to give a fuller account of a program that is a hallmark of Obama’s counter-terrorism policy — but that was a covert policy not publicly acknowledged by the government just months ago.

It also suggests Obama is close to codifying a set of principles to govern the use of drone strikes for future administrations, which will govern in a world where links to terrorism are less clear and other countries are also using drones. The effort began before last year's election, born from a desire within the White House to provide Mitt Romney with a clear set of procedures and standards for the use of drone strikes, were he to be elected.

“He thinks these are important issues,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “He believes very much in the need to be as transparent as possible on these matters with Congress as well as with the public.”

Paul declared “victory” Thursday after his filibuster prompted the Obama administration to send the Kentucky senator a letter saying the president could not use drones to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ ” Holder wrote to Paul. “The answer to that question is no.”

The Holder letter is just the latest disclosure from the administration shedding light on a program in the shadows.

In January, NBC News obtained a Justice Department white paper explaining the legal authority for drone-killings of senior operational leaders of al Qaeda, even if they were U.S. citizens. Last year, the New York Times reported that the president had personally overseen the development of a top-secret “kill list” identifying potential targets.

Obama himself pledged greater transparency in this year’s State of the Union address.

“My administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations,” said Obama, who pledged in the “months ahead” to explain policies in an “even more transparent” way.

It’s a major shift for the White House, which did not publicly acknowledge the use of drones until April 2012, when John Brennan — whose confirmation as CIA Director was held up Wednesday by Paul’s filibuster — gave the first speech about the program.

Both the Defense Department and CIA have an arsenal of armed drones, which are used primarily to target terrorists in areas where the U.S. military is not: Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Yet there are more questions about the drone attacks than answers. For example, the administration has not disclosed how many people have been killed by drone strikes in their expanded use under Obama.

Some lawmakers, including Paul, have challenged the constitutionality of such attacks. In 2011, New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki was an al Qaeda leader connected to attacks against the United States, including the attempted “underwear bombing” of a flight to Detroit in 2009.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the liberal-leaning National Security Network, said that the issue began getting more public attention last year, but the presidential campaign had curtailed public engagement from the administration.

Now that may be changing.

“This is an issue that was sort of starting to reach a bubbling point where there was talk inside and outside government about assessing the program,” Hulburt said. “What I think the White House is now doing is picking up the public conversation, the seeds of which were in place before the campaign got really hot.”

The drone debate cuts across party lines, with Paul aligned with liberal Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the lone Democrat to join Wednesday’s filibuster.

There were questions Thursday over why more Democrats didn’t join Paul when many of them have the same concerns about Executive Branch overreach on drones.

Wyden said that he expected to see more scrutiny from Congress over the classified program going forward.

“I thought it was a day when people would see that this concern about the balance between liberty and security is a bipartisan one,” Wyden said of the filibuster. “I think you’re going to start seeing the emergence as what I sometimes call around here the checks and balances caucus. And there will be a lot of Democrats in it.”

While Paul’s filibuster received support from more than a dozen Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — he was slammed Thursday by defense hawks Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

McCain described some of Paul’s arguments as “ridiculous,” and that some of his colleagues who joined Paul should “know better.”

He bristled at questions over whether support of the filibuster signified a shift in his party’s foreign policy views. “I have no idea, nor do I care,” McCain said. “I could care less if my view is majority or minority — I know what’s right. I’ve been involved in national security for 60 years.”

Paul shot back that McCain was “dismissive” of a legitimate issue.

“What I would say is that he’s wrong — the issue is a very important issue,” Paul told reporters. “He’s dismissive of something that involves the discussion of whether the 5th Amendment applies to American citizens and I consider that to be a very important issue.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who did not take part in the filibuster, said Paul had shaken things up in the Senate.

“There is a sensitivity and a deep concern among the American people that too much power is being arrogated here,” Sessions said. “The president doesn’t have power to just execute somebody, and I think that concern needs to be heard. And Rand Paul made it heard last night.”