By Carlo Muñoz - 03/07/13 09:12 PM EST
The Senate confirmed John Brennan as director of the CIA on Thursday, following a 13-hour filibuster led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Brennan, the current White House counterterrorism chief, was approved to head the CIA, 63 to 34. The confirmation came after weeks of contentious hearings concerning Brennan's ties to the administration's armed drone program, and was capped by Paul's old-fashioned filibuster..
Brennan could begin his tenure as CIA director as early as this week.
Paul began filibustering the nomination on Wednesday, demanding that the Obama administration state clearly that the armed drone program would not be used against American citizens on American soil. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Paul, stating that the administration has no right to target and kill American citizens on U.S. soil.
"Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no. The answer to that question is no," according to Holder's letter, read to reporters by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Prior to Wednesday's filibuster, several GOP Senators had expected a
smooth confirmation for Brennan, compared to the bitter partisan fight
that plagued Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation.
Shortly after Holder's letter to Paul, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a deal had been reached with Republicans to hold a vote on the Brennan nomination.
Of the 34 votes cast against Brennan, two were Democrats -- Sens. Pat Leahy (Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, also voted nay.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence panel, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) voted against confirmation also opposed the Brennan bid on Thursday.
“While I respect Mr. Brennan’s experience and service, he does not possess the objectivity and independence that are crucial to successfully carrying out the responsibilities of Director of our nation’s most important intelligence agency," Cornyn said in a statement.
Georgia Republican, for his part, said his no vote was not an admonishment of the CIA or the intelligence community, but it indicated his frustration over unauthorized leaks of classified intelligence by the White House under Brennan's watch.
Sensitive information on intelligence operations, ranging from the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistani hideout to cyber warfare missions against Iran, were made public.
Those leaks, according to Chambliss, endangered critical American counterterrorism operations for the White House's political gain.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) also voted against the Brennan nomination, as did Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Leahy.
Both Leahy and Grassley argued that the White House has yet to disclose sensitive information on the drone program to the Judiciary panel.
"The administration has stonewalled me and the Judiciary Committee for too long on a reasonable request to review the legal justification for the use of drones in the targeted killing of American citizens," Leahy said in a statement shortly after the confirmation vote.
Both senators have been pressing the Obama administration to hand over the Justice Department memos justifying the drone program, arguing they deserved the same access to those documents as their counterparts on the Senate intelligence panel.
“I have worked with John Brennan, and I respect his record, his experience, and his dedication to public service ... [but] I expect the Judiciary Committee, which has [Justice Department] oversight ... to be afforded the same access," Leahy said. "For that reason, I reluctantly opposed Mr. Brennan’s nomination.”
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) voted to confirm Brennan, after abandoning plans to block the nomination due to unanswered questions about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham said Wednesday that he would continue to press the issue, in which U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during the attack, in future hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On Thursday, both Republicans slammed Paul's filibuster as "ridiculous," arguing there would be no scenario in which U.S. drones would kill American citizens inside the United States.
"To infer that the president is going to kill someone ... who disagrees with him is simply ridiculous,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “If someone is an enemy combatant, that enemy combatant has nowhere to hide."
Paul voted against the confirmation.
During his time at CIA, and later as White House counterterrorism chief, Brennan played a key policy role in ushering in the aggressive use of targeted killings of suspected terrorists via armed aerial drone strikes.
The growing political pressure in Washington on the drone program prompted Brennan to turn down the CIA nomination in 2008, paving the way for then-Gen. David Petraeus to assume the post. Petraeus stepped down from CIA last year after admitting to an extramarital affair.
-- Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this report