WASHINGTON: John Brennan won U.S. Senate confirmation Thursday to head the CIA after a late struggle that had more to do with presidential power to order drone strikes than with the nominee’s credentials to lead the nation’s spy agency.
The Senate voted 63-34 to give Brennan the top job at the Central Intelligence Agency. He will replace Michael Morrell, the acting CIA director since November.
The vote came after the Obama administration bowed to demands from Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, to specify limits on the president’s authority to order drone strikes against American citizens in the United States.
Paul, mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, declared that he was satisfied with the administration’s statement, which said the president did not have the authority to use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.
Brennan’s credentials were scarcely mentioned in a final 24-hour stretch of political and constitutional drama surrounding his nomination.
Instead, Paul’s 13-hour talkathon attracted widespread attention on Twitter and other social media, led the party to seek campaign contributions for the 2014 elections and prompted a parade of other conservative tea party-backed senators to declare their support. Other Republicans were critical of Paul, and harshly so.
The letter to Paul from Attorney General Eric Holder was brief.
“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.
“The answer to that question is no.”
Brennan has long appeared to hold enough votes to win confirmation. But the letter marked the administration’s third concession in recent days in its attempt to bring the matter to a vote.
Earlier this week, responding to demands from lawmakers in both parties, the White House gave members of the Senate Intelligence Committee access to legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against terror suspects. It also
gave Republicans documents relating to last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Paul’s lengthy speech, known as a filibuster, roiled the Republican party at the same time it got the attention of the White House.
Just hours after Paul ended his filibuster – and got an endorsement from minority leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell – two senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee dismissed Paul’s claims as unfounded and ridiculous and expressed support for Obama’s controversial drone program as the nation wages war against terrorism.
Both Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham also challenged members of their own party.
“To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone,” Graham said in remarks on the Senate floor.
McCain scoffed at Paul’s contention that the U.S. would have targeted actress Jane Fonda during her trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
“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 5 1/2 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,” he added.
During the height of the war, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam, visited with the enemy and was widely vilified.
After his remarks, Graham told reporters that he had planned to vote against Brennan’s nomination but now intends to support the nominee because the confirmation fight has become a referendum on the drone program.