WASHINGTON, Mar – A Republican senator sought Wednesday to block President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, saying he would speak as long as it took to do so, citing concern about drone strikes on US soil.
In a remarkable display that highlighted the partisan divide in Washington, Rand Paul talked for more than nine hours in a so-called “filibuster,” seeking to derail John Brennan’s appointment at the US spy agency.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, tried to bring the blocking tactic to a close, but Paul, a favorite of the Republican Party’s most conservative factions, refused to stop.
His oratory held up any other Senate action as he railed against US policy on targeted killings, following the Obama administration’s refusal to rule out drone strikes in the United States.
Paul said he would be happy to yield the floor “if the president or the attorney general will clarify that they are not going to kill non-combatants in America.”
The drone issue gained fresh currency on Capitol Hill, with senators from both parties pressing US Attorney General Eric Holder on whether the administration believes such drone attacks could be justified.
Paul demanded answers from President Barack Obama on the secret unmanned aerial drone program that has emerged as the most contentious element of Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA.
“I will speak as long as it takes until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone, on American soil, without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty by a court,” Paul said.
Brennan’s nomination easily cleared the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, despite fury from leading Republican lawmakers at what they said was a lack of disclosure over last year’s attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including US ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Senate Democratic leadership wanted to move this week on a confirmation vote for Brennan.
But Paul was making Senate leaders sweat a little. By the filibuster’s third hour, he enlisted Republicans including Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Saxby Chambliss. By hour four, Marco Rubio joined in, as did Democrat Ron Wyden, who has long questioned White House power on national security issues.
“You are raising some of the most important questions… we could be asking,” Wyden said, without causing Paul to yield control of the floor.
“This is just the beginning of this debate.”
Tea Party-backed Cruz, noting that Paul might be unaware of the goings on in the outside world, told Paul that Twitter was “blowing up” over his filibuster. And he proceeded to read out more than a dozen tweets in support of his colleague.
Congressman Louie Gohmert walked over from the House of Representatives to chat with Paul and hand him some candy while Cruz was speaking.
Paul had threatened to filibuster Brennan’s nomination as early February 13, when he demanded answers from the administration about the president’s power to authorize lethal force.
Holder responded Tuesday, stressing that while Obama had “no intention” of ordering drone strikes on US soil, the scenario could be possible if there was an “extraordinary circumstance” such as an attack similar to 9/11.
Paul reacted with revulsion, saying he had expected an “unequivocal ‘no.’”
And he insisted that his critique was not partisan. “Were this a Republican president, I’d be here saying exactly the same thing,” Paul said.
Paul acknowledged that US drone strikes have proved effective in places like Pakistan and Yemen, including a strike on US-born radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Paul branded a traitor.
But “if you’re going to kill non-combatants, people eating dinner, in America, there have to be some rules,” he added.
Paul began his filibuster at 11:47 am (1637 GMT), and his effort recalled the classic “talking filibusters” of old.
But he acknowledged Brennan was a virtual lock for the CIA, calling the filibuster “a blip” in the process.
The ultimate goal, he said, was to get Obama to “say explicitly that non-combatants in America would not be killed by drones.”