A Senate vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director was delayed by a filibuster, as Republican Senator Rand Paul demanded that the Obama administration pledge it won’t use drones to attack Americans on U.S. soil without an “imminent threat.”
Attorney General Eric Holder sought today to assuage Paul’s concerns in a letter to the senator.
“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. “The answer to that question is no.”
Paul told reporters that he hadn’t seen the letter and had no immediate reaction to it.
President Barack Obama’s choice of Brennan, 57, to head the Central Intelligence Agency has become entangled in growing tensions between Congress and the administration over its use of armed drones to attack suspected members and allies of al-Qaeda. Brennan oversees the drone program as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.
Brennan’s eventual confirmation wasn’t in doubt, as Paul acknowledged while holding the Senate floor for more than 12 hours of talk with help from like-minded colleagues. His filibuster ended early this morning. The tactic is often threatened to exert leverage but seldom used anymore.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, abandoned efforts to move to a vote yesterday. Today, he said he hopes an agreement to vote could be reached or a Saturday session may be required.
The Senate intelligence committee voted 12-3 behind closed doors on March 5 in favor of Brennan’s confirmation after the administration allowed panel members a look at Justice Department documents making the legal case for using pilotless aircraft to attack U.S. citizens abroad linked to terrorism. The radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver, were killed in suspected drone strikes in Yemen in 2011.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Paul’s home state of Kentucky, came to the Senate floor shortly before the filibuster ended to announce he will oppose Brennan, calling Obama’s pick a “controversial nominee.”
Paul was elected in 2010 with support from the anti-tax Tea Party movement. He is the son of former Representative Ron Paul of Texas who, in seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012, pressed his libertarian case for limited government and reining in U.S. foreign involvement.
The younger Paul, 50, focused in his filibuster on the hypothetical possibility the administration might use drones to attack an American on U.S. soil. He was supported in yesterday’s debate by Republican senators that included Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, who also are aligned with the Tea Party.
Obama “will be the executioner-in-chief if he sees fit,” Paul said. A drone attack could kill an innocent American who’s in a cafe or walking down the street, he said.
In a March 4 letter to Paul, Holder said such domestic use of drones is “entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur and one we hope no president will ever have to confront.”
Holder said he couldn’t rule it out under an “extraordinary circumstance,” such as preventing “a catastrophic” event on the magnitude of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Paul’s assertion that the administration has failed to provide sufficient assurances on the issue drew rebukes from some fellow Republicans.
Two Senate Republicans took to the floor today to take on Paul’s contention that an innocent American who is dining in a cafe or walking down a street could face the risk of a drone attack.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called “ridiculous” Paul’s suggestion of such a scenario, along with his suggestion that someone who engages in anti-war activity -- such as actress Jane Fonda did during the Vietnam War -- is vulnerable.
“To somehow allege that the United States of America, our government, would drop a drone Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda, that brings the conversation from a serious discussion on U.S. policy to the realm of ridiculous,” McCain said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Paul “cheapens the debate” with questions about the administration’s stance on drone use against non-enemy combatants in the U.S. Such as act would be murder, he said.
Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, yesterday issued a statement calling Paul’s concerns about drone attacks on American soil “irresponsible” and a distraction from “the real threats facing the country.”
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who had led demands to see the Justice Department documents on drones, pledged yesterday to work with Paul and other critics on legislation clarifying the use of force.
Paul held forth for about half the time of the longest filibuster. That record was achieved by Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The most recent previous filibuster was in December 2010, when Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, held the floor for eight hours and 37 minutes to oppose a tax legislation he said hurt the middle class.
Senate confirmation of Brennan would round out Obama’s second-term national security team. John Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state on a 94-3 vote on Jan. 29. Chuck Hagel was approved as defense secretary on a 58-41 vote on Feb. 26.
Brennan would take over from Michael Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, who has been leading the agency on an acting basis since David Petraeus resigned in November after admitting to an affair with his biographer.