WASHINGTON — After nearly 13 hours on the Senate floor, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., ended his filibuster blocking Senate confirmation of John Brennan, President Obama’s pick for director of the CIA.
“I’m going to speak as long as I can to draw attention to something I find very disturbing,” Paul said when he started speaking around 11:45 a.m. Wednesday morning. He finally ceded the floor at about 12:40 a.m. local time on Thursday.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, said he would continue to oppose Brennan’s confirmation and ending debate on it.
What started in the morning as a solo effort turned into a multi-senator debate that included one Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and at least seven Republicans questioning the constitutionality of drone strikes on U.S. citizens at home and abroad.
“No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty of a crime by a court,” Paul said. “How can you kill someone without going to a judge, or a jury?”
Paul, a critic of Obama’s unmanned drone policy, started his self-described filibuster by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring that unmanned aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens.
Paul said that his opposition was not about Brennan himself, but the constitutional issues involved. “We really just want [Obama] to say he won’t” attack noncombatants on U.S. soil.
The federal government has not conducted such operations and doesn’t plan to, Attorney General Eric Holder told Paul in a March 4 letter. But, Holder added, it was possible President Obama could be forced by an “extraordinary circumstance” to kill citizens inside the United States, and he cited the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks as examples.
During his filibuster, Paul said the fuzziness of such language created a slippery slope that could lead to the targeting of citizens who merely have different opinions about policies than the president.
“You can’t be judge, jury and executioner all in one,” Paul said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took the floor around 4:30 p.m. to say any vote to end debate on Brennan’s nomination or to approve him as CIA director would happen Thursday.
Wyden, a longtime critic of excessive government intelligence and surveillance programs, said “the senator from Kentucky has made a number of important points.”
There are times, Wyden said, when a U.S. citizen who takes up arms against the United States while overseas can be attacked by a drone. But the executive branch of government, he said, should not be allowed to “conduct such a far-reaching policy without scrutiny.”
It’s not a partisan issue, Paul said, noting that he voted to support the nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the secretaries of State and Defense.
Paul and other senators had delayed a full Senate vote on Brennan’s nomination until they received more information about the drone program. The White House provided Justice Department documents on the drone program to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.
The committee then voted 12-3 to approve Brennan’s nomination.
Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, was closely linked to the drone program. The administration has used the unmanned aircraft to regularly target suspected terrorists in the Middle East and Africa.
In 2011, U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, raising questions about the use of the armed drones on American citizens.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had used Brennan’s nomination to air concerns about the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
McCain and Graham said they would oppose Brennan unless they got classified documents detailing the administration’s actions immediately following the attack, the Associated Press reported.
The White House has said it provided more documents to lawmakers about that attack.
Before coming to the White House, Brennan served 25 years in the CIA.