Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster against drone strikes sets Senate alight

The junior senator from Kentucky is now getting some much-needed rest.

Libertarian Republican senator Rand Paul, the son of wannabe Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul, made history last night with one of the longest filibuster speeches in American history. Paul spoke for thirteen hours in an attempt to delay the senate confirmation of John Brennan to run the CIA, making a case against the President's equivocation on whether or not it is legitimate to carry out drone strikes on American citizens on American soil.

The filibuster has become a standard part of Senate republican blocking tactics in recent years, in part because its meaning has changed over time. It used to be the case that to filibuster a debate meant to speak at length in order to prevent it coming to a vote, with the intention being that the Senate would run out of time and have to move on to other business.

It was in that climate that Strom Thurmond made the longest ever filibuster speech during the debate over the 1957 civil rights act, speaking for 25 hours straight against the bill. (The fact that Thurmond's marathon effort was in support of racism didn't play against him, and he went on to become the oldest and longest-serving senator in US history, switching allegiance to the Republican party in 1964 and only retiring in 2003.)

Thurmond's attempt failed because the Senate authorities were prepared to delay all future discussions until the civil rights act passed. But in recent years, merely the threat of a filibuster has been enough to cause a bill to be abandoned. Since a vote of "cloture"—a motion to end the debate and move to a vote—requires a supermajority of sixty of the hundred senators, this has the effect of meaning that the minority party, provided it has more than forty senators, can control the Senate.

Earlier in the same session, Paul had joined in with this more common style of filibustering, refusing a vote of cloture for a judicial nominee who had once sued a gun company. But taking a stand agains Brennan, he did it the old-fashioned way, speaking passionately for thirteen hours on the problems with extrajudicial killing of Americans.

Frequently in filibusters, in the US and elsewhere, the delaying tactics are transparent. Legislators have even been known to read the contents of the phonebook in an attempt to find something to say, and one memorable case in Canada involved an MP reading the entirety of his own book to the parliament. Since the Canadian Hansard is bilingual, he was accused of receiving a taxpayer-funded translation on purpose.

This time, the debate was more on-message, although Politico does report some off-topic speeches from other senators joining in the filibuster:

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin gave a speech as much about the dysfunctional Senate and the dangers of the national debt as about drone policy. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that the essential issue of liberty shouldn’t divide the political parties. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona told Paul “the question you’ve asked is totally right and proper.” And so on.

As Ezra Klein points out, the success of Paul's filibuster—it was the first-term senator's biggest moment in the legislature to date, and succeeded in making his objections stand out from the normal Republican obstructionism—shows that there are times when the filibuster is a positive contribution to the machinations of the Senate. Klein writes:

This is the highest purpose of the filibuster: Allowing a passionate minority to slow down the Senate and make their case to both their colleagues and the American people. If more filibusters went like this, there'd be no reason to demand reform. And if there is reform, it needs to hold open the possibility for filibusters like this.

Eventually, nature took its course and Paul retired from the chamber, ending his speech with a note of regret that Thrumond's achievement still stands:

I would try to go another 12 hours and try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but there are some limits to filibustering and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.