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Last updated: March 7, 2013 6:35 am
Senator Rand Paul has ended a 13-hour filibuster designed to block a Senate vote on the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
The libertarian Republican started the filibuster – a technique allowing senators to block a vote by speaking on the chamber floor for as long as they can stay on their feet – just before midday on Wednesday in Washington.
The move by Mr Paul, who was joined by other senators from both parties, cast a spotlight on the Obama administration’s programme of targeted killings of terror suspects.
“I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our constitution is important,” Mr Paul said as he launched the filibuster. “How can you kill someone without going to a judge or a jury?” he asked, referring to the possibility of drone strikes on US soil against US citizens.
Mr Paul was trying to prevent a vote on the nomination of Mr Brennan, a former senior CIA official who serves as White House counter-terrorism chief. Mr Brennan is still expected to be confirmed by the full Senate once a vote is finally held.
The senators, mostly from the Republican right or the Democrat left, used the filibuster to launch a sustained criticism of the Obama administration’s use of armed drones to kill suspected terrorists.
Mr Paul was joined in the filibuster by fellow Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jerry Moran of Kansas, as well as Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon.
“Every American has a right to know when their government feels it has a right to kill them,” said Mr Wyden.
In his role at the White House, Mr Brennan has been the architect of the significant expansion over the past four years in the use of armed drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.
His nomination to the CIA, which is responsible for some of the drone strikes, has proved to be a catalyst for a public debate about the legality and effectiveness of targeted killings.
The filibuster coincided with the grilling of attorney-general Eric Holder by senators from both parties at a hearing of the Senate judiciary committee into the legal basis for the targeted killings.
In a tense exchange with the newly arrived Mr Cruz, who has quickly established a reputation for aggressive questioning in committees, Mr Holder agreed it would be “unconstitutional” to kill Americans in the US using drones in the absence of “imminent threat” such as a 9/11-style attack or Pearl Harbor.
Mr Holder initially replied that such killing would not be “appropriate” before finally telling Mr Cruz under questioning that it would be unconstitutional.
Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, a strong critic of aspects of the programmes, said that the outburst of unease in Congress about drones was unprecedented, even if some senators involved in the filibuster were not among the chamber’s most influential members.
“The administration knows they have to do this. Either they make the reforms themselves, or they will be externally imposed upon them by political and diplomatic pressure,” he said.
The George W. Bush administration’s use of torture and rendition of terror suspects was brought to a halt relatively quickly once congressional criticism started to build, he added.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the tools at government’s disposal are used in a way that is consistent with our Constitution, laws and values
- Patrick Leahy, committee chair
Much of Mr Paul’s hours-long speech was focused on the use of drones to target US citizens, either at home or abroad, but more broadly he demanded answers from Mr Obama about the programme’s secrecy and lack of outside scrutiny.
Earlier in the week, the White House relented to pressure from Congress and said members of the intelligence committees would be allowed to see all the justice department legal memos which authorise targeted killings.
However, that concession did not spare Mr Holder from some tough questioning when he appeared before the judiciary committee on Wednesday. “I am not alone in my frustration or in my waning patience,” said Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the committee.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that the tools at government’s disposal are used in a way that is consistent with our constitution, laws and values.”
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