WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as head of the Central Intelligence Agency Thursday, looking past contentious issues of American drone killings and the blind eye Brennan once turned to torture.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) dramatically elevated the profile of the nomination Wednesday, blocking it until he got an answer to the question of whether or not the White House would authorize a drone strike against an American citizen within the United States.
Still, Brennan passed relatively easily on a bipartisan vote of 63 to 34.
Paul believed that the answer he had gotten on drones was equivocal, and took to the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours to denounce such extrajudicial killings.
But Thursday, he got his answer in a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder.
In the letter, Holder said the answer to Paul's question -- "does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" -- is no.
"It has taken a while, but we got an explicit answer. I'm pleased that we did, and to me, I think the entire battle was worthwhile," Paul said on the floor. "I think that Americans should see this battle that we've had in the last 24 hours as something that's good for the country and something that should unite Republicans and Democrats in favor of the Bill of Rights," he added. He still voted against Brennan, however.
Some senators also objected to Brennan's record on torture. During his confirmation hearing before the Intelligence Committee, he dodged on the question of whether he thought waterboarding was torture. He also defended his lack of action over what he said he objected to during the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, found that lack of action troubling.
"We know that he was privy to information about the program," said Chambliss on the Senate floor. "It is expected that our intelligence professionals, especially those in leadership positions, will speak up when they see actions that they believe are harmful to the agency or to others," he said. "Yet, by Mr. Brennan's own account, he stood by and let CIA proceed down a path that he says he believed to be morally wrong.
"This is not the moral courage we expect," Chambliss added. "Unfortunately Mr. Brennan continues to insist that his official silence was entirely appropriate. I could not disagree more." Chambliss also voted no.
While a few Democrats spoke supportively of Paul's filibuster of Brennan, most backed the new head spy's confirmation based on his long experience, except Sens. Pat Leahy (Vt.), Jeff Merkely (Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he voted against Brennan because the White House refused to explain its legal reasoning for the targeted killing program, and "stonewalled" the committee, although it explained the justifications to the Intelligence Committee.
Merkley contended that Brennan was too cozy with the massive national security spying establishment that has strayed from constitutional protections since the Bush administration. "We need new leadership in our intelligence community to help steer our nation toward a clear re-affirmation of our values," Merkley said. "John Brennan, an inside player in both administrations, is not the right person for that job."
Sanders said he was not "convinced that Mr. Brennan is adequately sensitive to the important balancing act required to make protecting our civil liberties an integral part of ensuring our national security."
"I actually don't believe that there's anyone that's more qualified to take over the CIA than John Brennan, so he cannot be denied, in my view, on the basis of qualifications," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
The White House hailed the confirmation in a statement from the president:
With the bipartisan confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Senate has recognized in John the qualities I value so much—his determination to keep America safe, his commitment to working with Congress, his ability to build relationships with foreign partners, and his fidelity to the values that define us as a nation.
With John’s 25 years of experience at the Agency, our extraordinary men and women of the CIA will be led by one of their own. I am especially appreciative to Michael Morell for being such an outstanding Acting Director and for agreeing to continue his service as Deputy Director.
Timely, accurate intelligence is absolutely critical to disrupting terrorist attacks, dismantling al Qaeda and its affiliates, and meeting the broad array of security challenges that we face as a nation. John’s leadership, and our dedicated intelligence professionals, will be essential in these efforts. I am deeply grateful to John and his family for their continued service to our nation.
This story was updated to include statements from Merkley, Sanders and Leahy.