BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan was confirmed as head of the Central Intelligence Agency on Thursday, after a bizarre and protracted confirmation process.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won a hard-fought victory from the executive branch by forcing Attorney General Eric Holder to issue a short, blunt, and indisputably clear response to a question Paul had been asking for some time.
Dated March 7, the letter read in its entirety:
“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.”
That cleared the way for the vote on Brennan’s confirmation, and ended a long, bitter, but immensely entertaining episode in the annals of Senate politics.
The drama began shortly before noon on Wednesday, when Paul took the Senate floor.
"I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan's nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. 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 to be guilty by a court," he said.
He went on, and on, for about 13 hours.
Paul had been bombarding Brennan for weeks with demands for a simple answer to what he saw as a simple query: Did the government reserve the right to use drones against non-combatant US citizens on American soil?
The Kentucky senator got more than he bargained for. While Brennan freely acknowledged the CIA did not have that authority, the attorney general was not so categorical. In a tortured and awkward letter to Paul on March 4, he seemed to be saying that, in extremis, the president could do just about anything he deemed necessary.
“It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States,” he wrote.
Paul rejected that reply, and vowed to mount an old-fashioned filibuster, in which he would exercise his right to keep the floor until he either received assurance from the executive branch that it would not send drones against peaceful citizens sleeping in their beds, or else was physically unable to continue.
“In order to succeed [in a filibuster] you have to have strong convictions and a strong bladder,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “It’s obvious that Senator Paul has both.”
Not strong enough, it seemed. Having taken the floor a little before noon on Wednesday, Paul finally relinquished it just a few minutes shy of 1 a.m. Thursday without receiving the response he sought.
But he covered a lot of territory along the way.
“Lewis Carroll is fiction, right?” asked Paul as he began his monologue.
The answer to that was far from clear by the end of the night. Bleary-eyed observers glued to Paul’s gutsy and oddly fascinating performance could at times have been forgiven for wondering just what rabbit hole they had fallen into.
This was a world where Jane Fonda was in imminent danger from hellfire missiles, where Davy Crockett stood shoulder to shoulder with the senator from Kentucky, and where legislators seriously debated whether law-abiding citizens could be killed in their beds by a vengeful president.
Paul scorned tactics used by previous masters of the filibuster: no reading of recipes for him, no singing of Christmas carols. He stayed on message the entire time, asking over and over again whether Americans were prepared to cede the ultimate power to an unchecked executive.
“That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination," Paul said. "I object to people becoming so fearful they gradually give up their rights."
Paul repeatedly referred to actress Jane Fonda, asking whether “Hanoi Jane” would have been a legitimate target because of her public support for North Vietnam during the war.
While Paul did the bulk of the speaking, he received some help from several of his Senate colleagues, who rushed to ask extended questions or give lengthy statements.
Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told those assembled that it was the 177th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo; he read the emotional “Victory or Death” letter written by William Barrett Travis as the doomed defenders of the Alamo waited in vain for help.
“Davy Crockett and James Bowie would be proud to call you brother,” said Cruz, reminding the senators that Paul was originally from the Lone Star State.
Cruz also jumped in with dozens of tweets, saying that “the Twittersphere… is blowing up.”
It certainly was, as everyone from Matt Drudge to Sarah Palin sent their support, making #standwithrand the No. 1 trending topic at one point.
Code Pink, the women’s peace and social justice organization, weighed in heavily on #standwithrand, and sent the beleaguered senator a gaily decorated pink heart, via Twitter, of course.
There were even some surprise crossovers from the president’s team.
“Rand Paul is the MAN right now,” tweeted Van Jones, a former Obama adviser.
Late-night comedian Jon Stewart also threw in his two cents:
“I don’t agree with Rand Paul on everything,” he said, in what was surely an understatement. Stewart’s liberal views would normally put him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Paul, a Tea Party favorite. “But Rand Paul is using the filibuster the way it was meant to be used… as issues go, drone oversight is certainly one worth kicking up a fuss for.”
In the end, it will matter little, a fact that Paul freely acknowledged.
“Ultimately, Brennan will be a proved,” he said. “This will be a blip in his nomination process.”
He was right, of course; Brennan was confirmed, 63 to 34.
The Senate majority leader had added a stick to the process; as legislators prepared to depart for the weekend, Reid told them that, in the event that the Senate could not agree on cloture on Thursday, they would have to return for a vote on Saturday morning.
Apparently the thought of a weekend in Washington was more persuasive than a 13-hour talkathon.