TOPICS > Politics

After Almost 13-Hour Filibuster, Senate Confirms John Brennan for CIA Director

March 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as director of the CIA after an intense confirmation hearing and filibuster over concern about the president's power to order drone strikes on American citizens stateside. Scott Shane of The New York Times and Niels Lesniewski of Roll Call join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the confirmation.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Another key seat in President Obama’s national security team was filled today. The Senate approved a new leader for the Central Intelligence Agency, but not before a war of words over unmanned aircraft and presidential power.

WOMAN: The nomination is confirmed.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Brennan was confirmed as the CIA’s next director by a vote of 63-34 after a drama-filled 24 hours. It began yesterday when Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky launched a filibuster.

He demanded a firm answer on whether drone aircraft might ever target American citizens inside the United States. Attorney General Eric Holder had sent Paul a letter saying that, however unlikely, in extraordinary circumstances, it might happen.

SEN. RAND PAUL, R-Ky.: No one will ever forget Jane Fonda swiveling around in North Vietnamese armored guns, and it was despicable. Now, it is one thing if you want to try her for treason, but are you going to just drop a drone Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda? Are you going to drop a Hellfire missile on those at Kent State?

JEFFREY BROWN: Several other Republicans and one Democrat, Ron Wyden, joined Paul. And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered his support last night after the filibuster ended and again this morning.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: And the administration should simply answer the question. There’s no reason we cannot get this question answered today, and we should get the question answered today.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the morning also revealed a division in Republican ranks. Arizona Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, scoffed at Paul’s claim that someone like Jane Fonda would ever have been targeted.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham accused his colleagues of using a double standard.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone. You know, I don’t even remember the harshest critics of the — of President Bush on the Democratic side. They had a drone program back then.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney underscored the constitutional limitations on the president’s power.

JAY CARNEY, White House Spokesman: The president swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and he is bound by the law. Whether the lethal force in question is a drone strike or a gunshot, the law and the Constitution apply in the same way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this afternoon, Attorney General Holder sent Paul a new letter. In it, he said: “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? The answer to that question is no.”

Sen. Paul declared himself satisfied with that answer.

RAND PAUL: So, I am very pleased to have gotten this response back from the attorney general of the United States, and I think that Americans should see this battle that we have had in the last 24 hours as something that’s good for the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shortly thereafter, the Senate ended the debate and confirmed John Brennan.

And we are joined now by Scott Shane, a national security reporter at The New York Times, and Niels Lesniewski, who covers the Senate for Roll Call.

Start, let me start with you. It took a while, but in the end the president got his nominee. Briefly remind us about John Brennan’s experience, clearly someone well known at the agency he will now head.

SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: That’s right.

John Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA. He was station chief in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. He actually set up the National Counterterrorism Center, and then for four years he’s been basically at President Obama’s right hand overseeing counterterrorism. And in that role, he’s overseen the expansion of the drone strikes in Pakistan, in Yemen, and in Somalia.

And so he’s perhaps one of — he’s certainly one of the government’s most experienced counterterrorism hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Niels, what was playing out today with senators — especially with Senators McCain and Graham upbraiding Rand Paul? What was that about?

NIELS LESNIEWSKI, Roll Call: Well, what happened after last night, we noticed that Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham were not among those joining in the effort on the Senate floor in support of Sen. Paul during his almost-13-hour filibuster.

And what they were really — today, they were really protesting against even the context of the question that Sen. Paul sought and eventually received an answer to from the Obama administration, which sort of suggested that there could be a possibility that either President Obama or some future president may want to use a missile from a drone to actually kill an American citizen at a coffee shop somewhere on U.S. soil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how strong is this divide and what is the — what’s behind — I mean, what’s the key issue behind it that they’re fighting over?

NIELS LESNIEWSKI: Well, the Republican Party itself has had sort of a differing opinion for a while now on national security policy.

There’s the wing of the party which Senator Paul is becoming an emerging voice on, which is more skeptical of broad executive power, I would say, in this sort of regard vs. the traditional, more hawkish national security voices that are the likes of Senator McCain and Senator Graham that have been sort of the party standard bearers over the last number of years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I heard Sen. Paul today talk about how the filibuster actually sort of came — at least he was saying today came together without a lot of planning, it sounds like.

NIELS LESNIEWSKI: Well, that’s true.

I know that his staff and he had been preparing for the possibility of doing this at some point, but yesterday really was a perfect storm or perhaps a perfect non-storm, in that because there was no massive amount of snow at the Capitol that caused people to leave early, with people in the building not having a whole lot to do in some cases, were able to watch their internal TV monitors or externally and watch the Senate floor and join in the effort with Senator Paul because a lot of their meetings in some cases had already been canceled.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Scott Shane, from the national security side, this question of the use of drones on American soil, how much does, if at all, does it fit into the thinking or planning of national security agencies? How much has it ever been debated?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, drones — of course, the vast majority of the drones, the unmanned aircraft are being used for surveillance, not for killing.

I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s been very little thinking about using armed drones on American soil. It’s conceivable in the future of course that — police shoot criminals in emergency situations all the time. It’s certainly imaginable in the future that drones might be part of such a scenario.

But I think it’s fair to say that the security agencies have not — found Senator Paul’s questions sort of out of fantasyland and have not done a lot of thinking about killing Americans at home. They have in one case, in Sept. of 2011, killed one American overseas. And that was Anwar al-Awlaki, who had joined the al-Qaida branch in Yemen and was actively plotting terrorism against the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you got the sense that they were taken by surprise that this became the — I guess the final issue for John Brennan’s confirmation?

SCOTT SHANE: Yes, I think it was seen as something outlandish. But it may reflect that the administration has been extremely secretive about the drone program, about the targeting killing program.

And Attorney General Eric Holder promised yesterday that, as President Obama has said, that there will be greater transparency on this program in the future and that may dispel some of these fears that people have about how drones might be used.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Niels, in the meantime, where were the Democrats in all this? Because in the past, it would often be liberals who were raising objections to drones and other policies.

NIELS LESNIEWSKI: Well, one Democratic senator did lend his voice to some of the objections. That’s Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. But he’s been a voice on these issues for a fairly long time.

Sen. Richard Durbin, who is the number-two Democrat in the Senate, did say that he is going to hold hearings at his Judiciary Subcommittee into the constitutionality of the drone program and its particular use presumably for U.S. citizens, both on domestic land and, as was in the case that was just referenced, overseas.

And so I think we will see more of that as the time goes on, and there will be more questions asked probably from a broader array of senators than we saw last night.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Scott Shane, with John Brennan in now, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on enhanced interrogation program, it’s not public yet. You wrote about this. It’s not public yet, but we’re certainly learning more about it. And it sounds like it is going to be very damning of the CIA program.

So he’s got to face that right off, right?

SCOTT SHANE: That’s right.

This is a 6,000-page study of the interrogation program in the years after 9/11 at the CIA’s so-called black sites involving techniques like water-boarding, slamming people into walls, cold, nudity and that kind of thing. And the senators who — on the Intelligence Committee have said enough about this report that it’s quite clear that it condemns the use of those techniques, says they didn’t work very well and that they — that the program was mismanaged and that, in fact, CIA officials didn’t accurately describe what was going on to the White House, to Congress, to the Justice Department.

So it’s quite damning, and John Brennan as one of his first tasks out at CIA is going to have to manage the agency’s response to this. There’s still many people working at CIA who worked on that program, and the CIA itself is divided about the use of these methods that many call torture, just as the public has been divided and indeed the Intelligence Committee is divided.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott Shane of The New York Times, Niels Lesniewski of Roll Call, thank you both very much.

SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.