WASHINGTON (AP) — A bid by Senate Democrats on Wednesday for fast confirmation of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director hit a snag after a small group of Republican senators and a lone Democrat engaged in a lengthy discussion over the legality of potential drone strikes on U.S. soil.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced earlier in the day when the weather in Washington threatened to complicate travel plans that he was pushing to get a Senate confirmation vote quickly so senators would make appropriate arrangements.
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stalled the chamber just before noon to start what he called a filibuster of Brennan's nomination. Paul's remarks were centered on what he said was the Obama administration's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes inside the United States 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.
Attorney General Eric 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 held no personal animosity against President Barack Obama or Brennan and that his concerns were not exclusive to the Obama administration. He also didn't 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.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Paul, Brennan said the CIA does not have authority to conduct lethal operations inside the U.S.
Reid, meanwhile, said he intends to file a motion to cut off Senate debate, but he would need 60 votes to end debate and advance Brennan's nomination.
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."
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.
The committee cleared Brennan's nomination by a vote of 12-3, with four Republicans on the committee siding with the eight Democrats. 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. But action on the appointment stalled as committee members wrangled with the White House over the classified legal opinions prepared by the Justice Department that outline the use of unmanned spy planes to kill al-Qaida suspects overseas, including American citizens.
The White House released two of 11 legal opinions to the Intelligence Committee just hours before Brennan's confirmation hearing. Two other memos had already been released to the committee.
Intelligence Committee members had argued they can't perform adequate oversight without reviewing the contents of the opinions, but the White House had resisted requests for full disclosure until just hours before the committee voted on Brennan's nomination.
Brennan vigorously defended the use of drone strikes during his confirmation hearing. Although Brennan said the weapons are employed only as a "last resort," he also said he had no qualms about going after U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. A drone strike in Yemen killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA before moving in 2003 from his job as deputy executive director of the agency to run the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. He later worked as interim director of the center's successor organization, the National Counterterrorism Center.
When Bush's second term began in 2005, Brennan left government to work for a company that provides counterterror analysis to federal agencies. After Obama took office in 2009, he returned to the federal payroll as the president's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.