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McCain and Graham Offer Pointed Rebuttal to Senate Filibuster on Drones

Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham offered a pointed rebuttal Thursday morning to the nearly 13-hour filibuster Wednesday by Sen. Rand Paul about the Obama administration’s use of drones.

They are not on board with Republican support for Paul’s bid to get answers from the Obama administration about the drone program. Graham told reporters that he would support confirming John O. Brennan’s nomination to be the next CIA director, citing opposition to Paul’s filibuster over the issue.

On the floor, McCain said during a colloquy with Graham that he saw senators “who know better” join Paul on the floor Wednesday in voicing concerns that he thought were “totally unfounded.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Paul, contending that his fellow Kentuckian deserves answers to his questions about hypothetical drone strikes on U.S. soil and also announcing that he would oppose both limiting debate on and confirmation of Brennan. Other GOP leaders supported Paul as well.

“Senator Paul is right: the Obama Administration should answer these very legitimate questions about the use of drones against American citizens,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a written statement Thursday morning. “I still have very serious concerns about the Obama Administration’s use of drones against U.S. citizens, and I will not support John Brennan’s nomination for CIA Director.”

Graham, who represents South Carolina, objected to the fundamental precept behind Paul’s procedural maneuver, which ran past midnight and into Thursday morning. Paul suggested he wants an assurance from the White House and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., that an American citizen who is not an imminent threat sitting and sipping a latte in a cafe would not be killed with a drone.

“I find the question offensive,” Graham said. “I do not believe that question deserves an answer.”

Graham said that despite all his disagreements with President Barack Obama, he did not think he or any other president would engage in such an action outside of the law of war because such an act would constitute murder.

“To take this debate into the absurd is what I object to,” Graham said, stressing that he believes Paul’s question “cheapens the debate.”

“Noncombatants under the law of war are protected. Not subject to being killed randomly,” Graham said.

“We don’t want to blow up the cafe. We want to go in there and grab the person for intelligence purposes,” Graham said, noting that capture is preferable to using drones or firing missiles. He expressed the view that the drones are being used in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan for tactical reasons due to inaccessible terrain and for other reasons that preclude operations on the ground.

Who Is a Target?

McCain, who represents Arizona, also criticized one of Paul’s repeated lines during the filibuster about the possibility of Jane Fonda being killed by a drone had the technology been available during the Vietnam War.

“To infer that the President is going to kill someone like Jane Fonda or anyone else who opposes the administration’s policies is “a stretch of the imagination that is frankly ridiculous,” McCain said.

“The number of Americans killed in the United States by drones is zero,” Graham said, flanked by a chart with that figure and the number of Americans killed by al Qaeda operations within the confines of the United States, which is almost 3,000.

McCain and Graham also engaged with Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who sat on the floor for much of Wednesday evening as Paul and an assortment of GOP senators discussed the drone program.

“It was 12 hours ago when I was standing right here … a lonely voice,” Durbin said. The Illinois Democrat was the only lawmaker speaking in opposition on the floor late Wednesday night.

“It is ludicrous. It is absurd,” Durbin said of the drone strike scenario.

Durbin said he thought Wednesday’s debate in part came down to semantics, noting “Holder could have been more artful in his language,” in response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Department of Justice.

Cruz’s question about targeted killings was one of the highlights of the hearing, during which Holder indicated that using a drone to strike a U.S. citizen sitting at a cafe wouldn’t constitute “an appropriate use of lethal force.”

Sarah Chacko and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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