John Brennan took over Friday as director of the CIA, the finishing touch on President Barack Obama’s national security team for his second term.
The White House said Vice President Joe Biden swore Brennan in during a private ceremony in the Roosevelt Room, the morning after he won Senate confirmation amid a contentious debate. Republicans had blocked his nomination but lifted their delay after the administration bowed to their requests for clarification about the president’s power in using drones.
Last week Chuck Hagel won Senate confirmation to be defense secretary, joining Secretary of State John Kerry in Obama’s revamped second-term lineup.
The Brennan vote was 63-34 and came just hours after Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, used an old-style filibuster of the nomination to extract an answer from the administration on the drone question.
Brennan won some GOP support. Thirteen Republicans voted with 49 Democrats and one independent to give Brennan, who has been Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, the top job at the nation’s spy agency. He replaces 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.
The confirmation vote came moments after Democrats prevailed in a vote ending the filibuster, 81-16.
In a series of fast-moving events, by Senate standards, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a one-paragraph letter to Paul, who had held the floor for nearly 13 hours on Wednesday and into Thursday.
“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” Holder wrote Paul.
“The answer to that question is no.”
That cleared the way.
“We worked very hard on a constitutional question to get an answer from the president,” Paul said after voting against Brennan. “It may have been a little harder than we wish it had been, but in the end I think it was a good healthy debate for the country to finally get an answer that the Fifth Amendment applies to all Americans.”
However, Paul’s filibuster of the Brennan nomination roiled the GOP, with McConnell, libertarians and tea partyers rallying to the freshman senator’s side and military hawks such as John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina arguing that Paul’s claims were unfounded.
The government’s drone program and its use in the fight against terrorists were at the heart of the dispute.
Though Paul held the Senate floor for the late-night filibuster, about a dozen of his colleagues who share his views came, too, to take turns speaking for him and trading questions. McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian who faces re-election next year, congratulated him for his “tenacity and for his conviction.”
McConnell said in Senate remarks on Thursday, “The United States military no more has the right to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who is not a combatant with an armed, unmanned aerial vehicle than it does with an M-16.”
Paul’s filibuster echoed recent congressional debates about the government’s authority in the anti-terror war and whether the United States can hold American terror suspects indefinitely and without charge. The disputes have created unusual coalitions as libertarians and liberals have sided against defense hawks.
The latest GOP split also underscored the current rift within the rank and file over budget cuts, with some tea partyers willing to reduce defense dollars to preserve tax cuts but longtime guardians of military spending fighting back.
During his talkathon, Paul had suggested the possibility that the government would have used hellfire missiles against anti-war activist Jane Fonda or an American sitting at a cafe. During the height of the Vietnam War, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam and was widely criticized by some in the U.S. for her appearances there.
McCain derided that notion of an attack against the actress and argued that Paul was unnecessarily making Americans fear that their government poses a danger.
“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 the policies is a stretch of imagination which is, frankly, ridiculous,” McCain said.
McCain found himself in the odd position of defending Fonda’s constitutional rights over her July 1972 trip to Hanoi that earned her the derogatory nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
“I must say that the use of Jane Fonda’s name does evoke certain memories with me, and I must say that she is not my favorite American, but I also believe that, as odious as it was, Ms. Fonda acted within her constitutional rights,” said McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5½ years. “And to somehow say that someone who disagrees with American policy and even may demonstrate against it is somehow a member of an organization which makes that individual an enemy combatant is simply false. It is simply false.”
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