Senate confirms Brennan to CIA

Filibuster ends, but not before splitting alliances

John Brennan is a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia and has served as President Obama’s principal counterterrorism adviser for the past four years.
John Brennan is a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia and has served as President Obama’s principal counterterrorism adviser for the past four years.

WASHINGTON — The Senate, nudged slightly off its political axis by Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster highlighting potential threats from the nation’s drone policy, voted Thursday to confirm John Brennan to be director of the CIA.

The vote was 63 to 34, but the act itself was anticlimactic after the rare ‘‘talking filibuster’’ and the tally was juggled by Paul’s efforts. The reaction to his extraordinary scrutiny of the Obama administration’s drone-strike program revealed some surprising divisions and alliances on Capitol Hill.

The usual partisan landscape in the Capitol was scrambled, with some Republican lawmakers attacking Paul, a Kentucky Republican, for criticizing the president, while liberals and Democrats praised him. Of the 81 votes to end the filibuster, 28 were from Republicans, 13 of whom also voted to confirm Brennan.


The filibuster began Wednesday afternoon and lasted for nearly 13 hours, ending after midnight on Thursday. Paul was demanding that the White House clarify that it would not use aerial drones to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism on US soil — a point on which he felt the administration had not been sufficiently clear.

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Brennan’s nomination forced the administration to be more forthcoming about its drone operations, which have devastated Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan and have been expanded to target affiliated groups in Yemen and Somalia.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, one of the administration’s harshest Republican critics but a supporter of the drone program, said the filibuster caused him to change his vote on the Brennan nomination to support Obama.

‘‘I am going to vote for Brennan now because it’s become a referendum on the drone program,’’ Graham said. ‘‘Where were all these people during the Bush administration?’’

The one Democrat who joined the filibuster, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, said that Paul was asking important questions of the administration.


‘‘I want it understood that I have great respect for this effort to really ask these kinds of questions,’’ Wyden said. ‘‘And Senator Paul has certainly been digging into these issues in great detail.’’

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement supporting Paul. ‘‘There is now a truly bipartisan coalition in Congress and among the public demanding that President Obama turn over the legal opinions claiming the authority to kill people far from a battlefield, including American citizens,’’ said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office.

Brennan, a CIA veteran and former station chief in Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s principal counterterrorism adviser for the past four years and is one of the chief architects of the program that has emerged as the spy agency’s signature counterterrorism tactic.

The Brennan nomination brought unprecedented scrutiny to the administration’s use of drones to kill terrorist suspects overseas, and in recent days critics have questioned whether it could be imported to the United States to target American terrorism suspects at home.

A still-theoretical discussion about the domestic use of armed drones emerged after lawmakers demanded access to the Justice Department legal opinions that justified the 2011 drone killing in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen.


The Obama administration turned over a number of classified memos to the Senate Intelligence Committee that laid out the legal rationale underpinning the joint CIA-military operation against Awlaki, who was described by intelligence officials as a senior operational figure in Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.

In a letter to Paul on Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said that in an ‘‘extraordinary circumstance’’ such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor it might be ‘‘necessary and appropriate’’ for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force in the United States. But Holder said such a situation was ‘‘entirely hypothetical.’’

Paul was not satisfied.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that ‘‘the president has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil.’’

‘‘On the broader question, the legal authorities that exist to use lethal force are bound by and constrained by the law and the Constitution,’’ Carney continued. ‘‘The issue here isn’t the technology. The method does not change the law.

“The president swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and he is bound by the law. Whether the lethal force in question is a drone strike or a gunshot, the law and the Constitution apply in the same way.’’