WASHINGTON — A Republican critic of the Obama administration's drone policy succeeded Wednesday in blocking a vote on John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director over questions about the possible use of the unmanned weapons against American citizens.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., mounted a filibuster against President Barack Obama's pick to lead the spy agency and he demanded that Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement making clear that drones would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he planned to file a motion to bring debate over Brennan's nomination to lead the spy agency to an end. But he would need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to do that. Reid had been pushing for a confirmation vote to be held Wednesday, but those plans were dashed by Paul's lengthy floor speech.
Paul began speaking shortly before noon on what he said was the Obama administration's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes inside U.S. borders against American citizens. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., joined Paul several hours after he began speaking. Wyden has long pressed for greater oversight of the use of drones.
Paul said he would be willing to end his filibuster and proceed to a vote if he received the statement from the president or the attorney general. Holder came close to making such a statement earlier in the day during an exchange with Cruz at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, according to Paul.
Cruz asked Holder if the Constitution allowed the federal government to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who doesn't pose an imminent threat. Holder said the situation was hypothetical, but that he did not think that in that situation the use of a drone or lethal force would be appropriate. Cruz criticized Holder for not simply saying "no" in response.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Paul, Brennan said the CIA does not have authority to conduct lethal operations inside the U.S.
Despite the delays, Brennan's bid to lead the spy agency received a boost when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday that he is leaning toward voting for Brennan after receiving detailed information about the attack last September on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had said they would oppose the nomination on the Senate floor if they didn't get classified information detailing the Obama administration's actions immediately following the attack that killed four Americans.
Graham also criticized his GOP colleagues, calling the prospect of drones being used to kill people in the United States "ridiculous."
"I think it's paranoia between libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified," Graham said. "I trust this president and other presidents to exercise commander-in-chief authority in a time of war."
Holder told Paul in a March 4 letter that the federal government has not conducted such operations and has no intention of doing so. But Holder also wrote that he supposed it was possible under an "extraordinary circumstance" that the president would have no choice but to authorize the military to use lethal force inside U.S. borders. Holder cited the attacks at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, as examples.
Paul said he did not dispute that the president has the authority to take swift and lethal action against an enemy that carried out a significant attack against the United States. But Paul said he was "alarmed" at how difficult it has been to get the administration to clearly define what qualifies as a legitimate target of a drone strike.
"No president has the right to say he is judge, jury and executioner," Paul said.
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Brennan's nomination won approval Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee after the White House broke a lengthy impasse by agreeing to give lawmakers access to top-secret legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects overseas.
If confirmed, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.
Brennan currently serves as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House. He was nominated by the president in early January and the Intelligence Committee held his confirmation hearing on Feb. 7.