The Senate confirmed John O. Brennan to be CIA director Thursday after Sen. Rand Paul received the answer he wanted from the Obama administration on the potential use of drones against Americans on U.S. soil.
Senators confirmed Brennan to lead the CIA 63-34 directly following a 81-16 vote to end debate on the nomination. Thirteen Republicans joined the majority of Democrats to support Brennan’s nomination. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., opposed the nominee.
Paul, a Kentucky Republican, rallied his party around the concerns he raised about domestic drone strikes during an almost 13-hour filibuster Thursday. In a less-than-50-word response Thursday to Paul’s request for clarification on administration policy, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote to the senator to say “no,” President Barack Obama does not have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.
Holder had sent a letter to Paul on March 4 that said there might be extraordinary circumstances, such as 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, where the government might have that authority. That response prompted Paul to hold an old-fashioned talking filibuster that went from 11:47 a.m. Wednesday to 12:39 a.m. Thursday.
While a number of Republicans rallied behind Paul, including Kentucky’s senior senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it was John McCain and Lindsey Graham who broke with their party to oppose Paul’s stand against drone strikes on U.S. soil.
“I was going to vote against Brennan, until the filibuster,” Graham, of South Carolina, said Thursday. “I thought Brennan was arrogant, a bit shifty. I am going to vote for Brennan now because it’s become a referendum on the drone program.”
Graham and McCain, of Arizona, also sought information from the White House on the September 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. While some questions remained outstanding, Graham said Thursday that senators had received “about 90 percent” of the information they wanted and that they will get the rest “through the Judiciary process.”
McCain also criticized Paul’s repeated statements during the filibuster that actress Jane Fonda, as an anti-Vietnam War activist, might have been killed by a drone if the technology had been available during that era.
“To somehow allege or infer that the president of the United States is going to kill somebody like Jane Fonda or somebody who disagrees with his policies is a stretch of imagination, which is, frankly, ridiculous,” McCain said.
Although McCain also said he had problems with Brennan’s positions on torture, the issue never gained much traction on the Senate floor.
Brennan withdrew from consideration to be CIA director four years ago over questions about his role in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as a senior agency official under President George W. Bush. During his Intelligence Committee hearing Feb. 7, Brennan denied playing a central role in the CIA program, which included the use of such controversial methods as waterboarding.
The Senate Intelligence Committee reported the Brennan nomination to the floor on Tuesday in a 12-3 vote after the Obama administration released other information on U.S. drone strike policies that satisfied committee members enough to advance the nominee.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.